The Federal Reserve and Climate Change

Four days ago, the NYT featured Paul Krugman’s op-ed, “Australia Shows Us the Road to Hell,” where he described the urgent situation of the fires now engulfing the entire continent and hypothesized about strategies for confronting the political issues blocking relevant policy changes:

What might an effective political strategy look like? I’ve been rereading a 2014 speech by the eminent political scientist Robert Keohane, who suggested that one way to get past the political impasse on climate might be via “an emphasis on huge infrastructural projects that created jobs” — in other words, a Green New Deal. Such a strategy could give birth to a “large climate-industrial complex,” which would actually be a good thing in terms of political sustainability.

Can such a strategy succeed? I don’t know. But it looks like our only chance given the political reality in Australia, America, and elsewhere — namely, that powerful forces on the right are determined to keep us barreling down the road to hell.

On the front page of the same issue of the NYT, Lisa Friedman wrote, Trump’s Move Against Landmark Environmental Law Caps a Relentless Agenda”:

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday capped a three-year drive to roll back clean air and water protections by proposing stark changes to the nation’s oldest and most established environmental law that could exempt major infrastructure projects from environmental review.

Paul Krugman warned of political forces on the right and the damage they were doing/could do but even he probably didn’t see that coming.

Depending on the election outcome, it will be either next year or 2025 before we can expect the federal government to be of any help with the issue. In fact, at least for now, the federal government will likely do everything in its power to accelerate the damage that climate is inflicting on the US and the world.

Fortunately, the federal government is not the only one in charge of the money. The Federal Reserve System (also known as the Fed) is the US’ central banking system. It is under Congress—and the Board of Governors that runs it must report to that body—but it is, “an independent agency that makes decisions based on the best available evidence and analysis, without taking politics into consideration.”

In addition, though the Congress sets the goals for monetary policy, decisions of the Board—and the Fed’s monetary policy-setting body, the Federal Open Market Committee—about how to reach those goals do not require approval by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branches of government.

The Fed has a large impact on the economy—among other powers, it sets the interest rates and thus directly influences key activities. These include housing (through mortgage rates) and the value of the US currency relative to other major currencies, which impacts both trade and the money available for major infrastructure projects.

Federal Reserve, government, bank, congress, open market committee, I’m glad to see that it looks like several of the 12 districts of the Reserve Banks that make up the Federal Reserve are taking the impact of climate change much more seriously than the federal government as a whole.

I had never heard of the American real estate blog Curbed before now but I will be rectifying that oversight. One of its articles from October focused my attention on the San Francisco Federal Reserve and how its publication is giving special attention to the present impacts of climate change, “How climate change creates a ‘new abnormal’ for the real estate market”:

A report from the San Francisco Federal Reserve underscores how climate shifts create big investment and economic risks

The publication page for the San Francisco Federal Reserve, part of the nation’s central banking system, isn’t known for light reading. Recent research papers, such as “Yield Curve Responses to Introducing Negative Policy Rates” or “Precautionary Pricing: The Disinflationary Effects of ELB Risk,” aren’t exactly meant to go viral.

But a new set of papers around climate change should gain an audience beyond academic and economic circles. Titled “Strategies to Address Climate Change Risk in Low- and Moderate-income Communities,” this collection of 18 articles by academics and experts collectively offers “one of the most specific and dire accountings of the dangers posed to businesses and communities in the United States,” according to the New York Times.

Other central banks and bankers are taking notice of climate change as well; Since 2017, 46 central banks and regulators have joined the Network for Greening the Financial System, according to the Financial Times, including representatives from China, France, and the United Kingdom. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Risk Report listed three risks of climate change—extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and natural disasters—as both the most immediate and most damaging.

These risks will also affect real estate investments and the operations of the real estate industry, which, despite increasingly grave reports about the impact of climate change on land use and sea levels, has not taken the policy steps and process reviews necessary to deal with the coming challenges.

The special San Francisco Federal Reserve issue of the Community Development Innovation Review addresses how climate change is already impacting the real estate market and offers some detailed advice on how we can adapt:

Without smart, proactive investments in adaptive capacity and resilience, low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities will likely be disproportionately affected by climate change-related events.1 This issue of the Community Development Innovation Review explores these investment opportunities and calls on the community development sector to take a leadership role in preparing vulnerable regions most at risk for a “new abnormal.”2

This issue would not have been possible without the extraordinary work of its guest editor, Jesse M. Keenan. A leading thinker on climate change risk—even adding the helpful term “climate gentrification” to the lexicon—Jesse recruited a remarkable group of thirty-eight authors to write for this issue. Their contributions, and Jesse’s, advance the community development sector and help us better prepare for a changing world.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, I’m encouraged by the work that’s already begun. As recently as this summer, in fact, the Low Income Investment Fund—a national Community Development Financial Institution—issued a $100 million “Sustainability Bond,” the first public offering directly aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.3 If that’s any indication, the community development sector has already begun to mobilize capital to address the impacts of climate change in LMI communities.

Nor is the San Francisco Federal Reserve alone. The Dallas Federal Reserve echoed the sentiment:

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas/ WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Dallas Federal Reserve President Robert Kaplan faced more questions on one particular topic than any other at a recent lunch with local business owners and community leaders on Texas’s Gulf Coast.

Texas has suffered catastrophic floods and billions in related losses in recent years. Now, “it’s hard to meet with a business person or a city or a community leader in this state” who doesn’t have questions on climate change, Kaplan, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and one of 17 Fed policymakers, said in response to a question at the Sept. 20 lunch.

It’s not just Texas. After devastating fires in Northern California and corrosive storms on the Carolina and Florida coasts, the Fed’s regional banks are delving deeper into how the earth’s warming will impact U.S. businesses, consumers and the country’s $17 trillion asset banking system.

I will keep looking at the economic and social impacts that climate change is fueling on the real estate market, mortgage rate, insurance market, immigration, and the US army.

Stay tuned.

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Where Are We Living? Can We Stay There?

A New Year! A New Decade!

By now, we have all made our wishes and resolutions. I am sure that everyone is hoping for better times. However, the news around the world has been very bleak. Globally, since the New Year, the fires in Australia and the US’ killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and others have dominated the news. Iran is viewing the latter as an act of war and has promised to retaliate militarily. Meanwhile, NYC, where I live, has also faced anti-Semitic attacks.

I have written before on Australia’s wildfires (see my January 14, 2013 blog). However, the recent fires dwarf those that came before. An Australian’s op-ed in The New York Times sums it up: The bookstore in the fire-ravaged village of Cobargo, New South Wales, has a new sign outside: “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.”

Comparisons to atomic bombs and committing suicide have been cropping up everywhere. For instance:

 BBC: What is Australia doing to tackle climate change?

The New York Times:

Australia Fires Keep Spreading as Military Reservists Called Up

NBC: Australia’s fires could change the country forever

 

I have family in Australia; some live in Melbourne, in the southeast, others are in Brisbane and the Gold Coast on the east. The deadly fires didn’t reach them but some of the refugees from the disaster areas did, as did some of the smoke. My family there is much more nonchalant about the matter than I am. I am studying every moment of the fires, paying close attention to their locations and scopes. I know that now is only the beginning of the fire season and that in future years things will get worse.

I will give updates on devastating fires around the world periodically in future blogs. Now that we have entered into a new decade, I think it’s time to look at how climate change is impacting individual segments of the global economy that we can see and measure now. One of the key subjects is the real estate market. After discussing that, I plan to look into the insurance market, environmental immigration, security, and politics. All of these topics are obviously connected.

We desperately need to shift our perspectives on climate change. We have been exclusively using relatively short-term references, with a generational time limit. We regard long-term predictions with great suspicion and a strong conviction that somehow, in a more distant future, something will turn the tides in our favor. I’ve dealt with these decadal shifts in outlook on climate change and other matters before (April 18, 2017) but starting the 2020s it’s time to look more closely at what we can do to shift these trends in our favor.

I will start with an excerpt from the April 18, 2017 blog to get us on that earlier wavelength:

The Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project grew from its three founding partners (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, The Ocean Conservancy, and Surfrider Foundation) to over twenty conservation groups and science organizations

For the fishing industry, this takes the following shape:

shifting baseline, fishing, past, future, watershed, generation, degradation, little ice age

Figure 1

The references change from generation to generation, ultimately resulting in a complete degradation of the natural stock that could have survived without human interference. Human interference is obviously not always destructive; it can often balance natural growth through human needs. For that to take place, however, we need people to be aware of how to determine such a balance and how to regulate human impact to maintain that balance. We need the scientists.

In another blog (February 23, 2016), where I described the flow of people between Cuba and Miami, I reminisced on an experience I had in Cape Town South Africa. I had discussed a recent trend of rich white South Africans buying real estate on the island of Mauritius as insurance against the uncertainties in South Africa:

In other words, the good times in Miami might not last much longer as the effects of climate change increase. I encountered a parallel situation during my last visit to Southern Africa. On my way to a conference in Mauritius (July-August 2013 blogs), we visited South Africa. A local family in Cape Town hosted us for dinner. As the conversation flowed and we told our hosts where we were going, they mentioned that among white South Africans, Mauritius is a popular place to buy property as an insurance against racial deteriorations in South Africa. I asked them if they took into consideration the impact of climate change on their choice of sanctuary, and got a confused stare in response. The topography of Mauritius (July 30, 2013) has some similarities to that of Cuba. The photograph below shows a beautiful landscape that is characteristic of the area we visited. It is certainly not as flat as southern Florida and one might easily consider it a perfect refuge in case of a water “siege” on Miami.

A few months ago, (September 2019) I talked about the Florida Keys, where climate change-triggered sea level rise was prompting the bulldozing of certain coastal neighborhoods:

The Great Climate Retreat is beginning with tiny steps, like taxpayer buyouts for homeowners in flood-prone areas from Staten Island, New York, to Houston and New Orleans — and now Rittel’s Marathon Key. Florida, the state with the most people and real estate at risk, is just starting to buy homes, wrecked or not, and bulldoze them to clear a path for swelling seas before whole neighborhoods get wiped off the map.

By the end of the century, 13 million Americans will need to move just because of rising sea levels, at a cost of $1 million each, according to Florida State University demographer Mathew Haeur, who studies climate migration. Even in a “managed retreat,” coordinated and funded at the federal level, the economic disruption could resemble the housing crash of 2008.

Yet the impacts of climate change have yet to reach the pathways of migration within the US. People are still moving from colder northern states to warmer southern ones:

Table 1 – The fastest growing US states in the last decade

US, growth, states, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, South Carolina, North Carolina, Washington, population, immigration

The issues in this blog are necessarily anecdotal. Next week I’ll move on to present and near future impacts on the real estate issue with an attempt to address it from more generalized policy perspective.

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Happy Holidays!

holidays, presents, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah

Happy New Year!

The end of the year brings Christmas (December 25th) and Hanukkah (December 22nd-30th), two traditional holidays, and Kwanzaa (December 26th – January 1st), which began in 1966. All three include giving presents. Children all over the world look forward to singing songs, praying, and unwrapping their presents.

It’s high time that we use these occasions to give our children and grandchildren the most important present of all: a planet that they can call their own, where they can be happy and secure throughout their lifetimes.

The Dutch Supreme Court was the first to unwrap the largest present:

The Supreme Court of the Netherlands on Friday ordered the government to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. It was the first time a nation has been required by its courts to take action against climate change.

Because of climate change, “the lives, well-being and living circumstances of many people around the world, including in the Netherlands, are being threatened,” Kees Streefkerk, the chief justice, said in the decision. “Those consequences are happening already.

Last week I examined the accelerated pace of the damage that climate change is inflicting on our children and grandchildren. Let’s try to quantify one aspect of that damage.

A direct indicator of the altered speed of climate change is the accelerated pace of sea level rise. Figure 1 illustrates this shift, as shown in the most recent WMO (World Meteorological Organization) report.

Global mean sea level rise

Figure 1Global sea level rise as measured by high-precision altimetry. The thin smooth line shows a quadratic function that best fits the data.

Figure 1 fits the global sea level rise to a smooth quadratic function over the time period of a full generation. The definition of a quadratic function is straightforward: Where f(x) is some function of x,

f(x) = x2

In our case, x is simply time.

In describing the physical world, the simplest function of this form is free fall from a height h, where the initial height and the initial velocity are both zero. The connection between time and height in this case are given as:

h = 0.5*g*t2

Here, h is the height from which the object starts falling and t is the time. g is the gravitational acceleration that is approximately constant over the entire planet. It depends on the size and mass of the planet but on Earth it has a value of 9.81m/sec2.

Quadratic dependence means motion with constant acceleration, i.e. motion caused by a constant force.

Let us now take a typical 10 year-old-kid (January 1st 2020) and try to calculate from Figure 1 the sea level rise that he/she will face. Figure 2 shows us that when the kid was born in 2010 the sea level was 40mm (4cm or 1.6 inches).

We use a pared down quadratic equation:

h = a*t2 + b

In this case, a and b are taken from Figure 1. Under the assumption that the acceleration remains constant, we can project the sea level rise in the future. We get b from the place where the smooth curve intersects the vertical axis: approximately 1.3mm; a is the intersection of the year 2020 (when the kid is 10 years old) and the vertical axis: 90mm. In another generation (by 2050), our kid will be 40 years old and will likely have his own family. At that time the sea level will be 400mm (40cm or 15.7 inches) high.

coast, flood, sea level rise, 2050

Figure 2Cities at risk from sea level rise of 0.5m expected by 2050 in business as usual scenario (RCP8.5)

Figure 2 shows a recent map of urban populations at risk from sea level rise by 2050 under a business as usual scenario. It includes 20 cities of over 10 million people. Likely billions of people all over the world will be at risk—either from direct flooding or less direct impacts of flooding like high tide. In addition, inland regions will face swarms of refugees fleeing from those flooded areas.

We can fix this now or at least start the process of doing so. Let’s make it our New Year’s resolution.

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Economic Impacts Report: Worse than Predicted?

Last week’s blog looked at Naomi Oreskes’ and Nicholas Stern’s October op-ed in The New York Times, “Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think,” which dealt with a report about the unexamined economic risks of climate change. The authors posted a Q&A two weeks later, addressing questions from interested readers. This week I’m dealing directly with the report on which the op-ed was based.

report on economic risks of climate change

The report’s cover, above, bears the logos of three of the academic institutions that lead the world in climate change research. The report was published under the auspices of the London School of Economics which houses the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, an institution where Nicholas Stern, one of the coauthors of both the report and the op-ed, serves as Director:

The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment was established by the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2008 to create a world-leading centre for policy-relevant research and training on climate change and the environment, bringing together international expertise on economics, finance, geography, the environment, international development and political economy.

The introduction of the report includes a short description of the three sponsoring institutions as well as mini biographies of all the coauthors. The 14 listed coauthors are divided almost equally between the physical sciences and economics. I say almost because most of them are highly interdisciplinary in their approaches; all are well known experts in their fields so we had better listen to what they have to say.

However, the report was not written for the same audience as the op-ed. It was aimed at policy makers rather than you and me. Climate reports show up often. I dedicate the second half of every semester that I teach climate change to the most up-to-date report—there’s a new one each time. Many of these reports appear in one way or another on this blog. Invariably, they contain an introduction summarizing the matter for policy makers, followed by a detailed analysis. You can find good examples of the IPCC reports and the National Climate Assessment reports on their respective websites. For those who have a question after reading the introduction and summary there are references on hand to the section with the original data and the rationale behind a finding.

The “Stern Review,” which I mentioned in last week’s blog and which was written by the same Nicholas Stern in 2005-2006, provides fantastic coverage of the economics of climate change as viewed at the time. The “Stern Review” has over 650 pages; the report that Oreskes and Stern reviewed has fewer than 15, not counting the references.

It is true that you can go to the original references provided in a report in search of support but almost no one ever does. When I read the report, my initial tendency was to look for cherry picking in arguments or rebuttals. With my background I quickly realized the validity of the reasoning. A less informed person (a policy maker, for instance?) likely wouldn’t spend the time or have the knowledge needed to do so.

The report has two main categories of arguments. The first category states that climate change is accelerating. Almost every climate change report worldwide agrees with that analysis; in certain impact areas such as sea level rise one can quantify the acceleration. The report provides some quantitative data about the accelerated impacts in the following areas:

    • Destabilization of ice sheets and glaciers and consequent sea level rise
    • Stronger tropical cyclones
    • Extreme heat impacts
    • More frequent and intense floods and droughts
    • Disruptions to oceanic and atmospheric circulation
    • Destruction of biodiversity and collapse of ecosystems

The report offers the conclusion that if the impact of climate change is accelerating the resulting economic impact will do so as well.

The second category is more complicated. Economists have a proven practice of not including impacts that they cannot quantify in their economic models. There is an abundance of issues in climate change that are not linear and not fully understood. The easiest way of saving face for economists so far has been to ignore them, thus eliminating the possibility that they could make big errors from wrong estimates. This issue is so important that I am citing the full section of the report:

5.  Why the risks have been missed, omitted or unquantified.

The biggest risks from climate change are associated with consequences that are unprecedented in human history and cannot simply be extrapolated from the recent past. As such they are uncertain and difficult for scientists to quantify in physical terms. Furthermore, the resulting consequences for lives and livelihoods can be difficult to determine because they involve assumptions about the resilience of populations, their capacity for adaptation and their ability to move in a crowded world. The cascading risks that can result from these impacts can be difficult to predict precisely and to capture in simulations using current models. These uncertainties mean that the impacts are difficult to represent in terms of costs and benefits and are therefore often ignored or omitted from economic models. In essence, they are assigned a probability of zero even though it is understood that to do so is incorrect.

Some of the physical processes that are not well understood, in terms of both occurrence and impact, and therefore are not adequately included in assessments are:

  • Ice sheet and ice shelf hydrology and dynamics
  • Severe storms and floods – including tornados, tropical cyclones and heavy rainfall events
  • Coastal erosion and its impact on infrastructure
  • Cascading ecosystem losses
  • Feedback loops that accelerate climate change – including permafrost thaw and forest die-off
  • Extreme heatwaves, droughts and associated wildfires

Other processes that need to be better represented in models include:

  • The determinants of agricultural productivity and consumption demand • Health impacts of climate change and labor productivity effects
  • Responses to extreme events – such as food shocks and destruction of assets • Health impacts from extreme events – such as wildfires and disease outbreaks and their interactions with air pollution
  • Political responses – such as changes in trade policies that can affect food security and prices
  • Adaptation responses – such as agricultural breeding, urban planning and land-use management

Models also struggle to represent compound events, such as sea level rise and storm surge impacts on exposed coastal populations, heatwaves and droughts, and pest and disease outbreaks. Other linked hazards that are not well represented include compound extremes (e.g. a coastal flood event striking a region already facing a river flood), sequential extremes (e.g. a drought event followed by a heatwave), and concurrent extremes (e.g. multiple breadbasket failures). Recent research indicates that compound, sequential and concurrent extremes would lead to more substantial aggregate impacts.

Even when the economic consequences of these impacts can be represented in policy assessments, they may be downplayed if they are not due to occur imminently. Inappropriate discounting by economists can lead very significant future impacts – such as long-term sea level rise during the 22nd century – to be treated as if they are relatively trivial compared with current impacts.

In addition, economic assessments often present consequences in terms of the impact on gross domestic product only, a measure of economic output that is too narrow to be able to convey the true nature and scale of damage to lives and livelihoods.

Finally, some risks are likely to be missed simply because scientists have not yet detected their possibility. As we have entered a period of climate change that is unprecedented in human history, there may be additional impacts that have not yet emerged and that we are not yet anticipating.

Some advances are being made in improving economic assessments of climate change impacts, but much more progress is required if these assessments are to offer reliable guidance for political and business leaders about the biggest risks. Some of the risks are difficult to model satisfactorily, but more progress might be made. Other risks are currently impossible to assess numerically, which economists need to acknowledge with greater openness and clarity.

Clearly this is an enormous issue that needs to be tackled. I’ll be looking at some of the specific economic issues that climate change is impacting now as well as some quantifiable, non-linear aspects of climate change.

Meanwhile, happy holidays to all of you!

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Pay Now or Pay Later: The Economic Costs of Climate Change

Climate Quid Pro Quo, cartoon, future, kids, children, generation, action

As an old guy who still teaches students and does scientific research, I have to be up-to-date on the science that relates to what I do. To study and teach climate change, I have to be current not only with regards to the relevant scientific literature but also with daily current events on a global scale. Therefore, I supplement my intake of daily papers and magazines with a broader spectrum of news sources. Fortunately (or not, debatably), our internet age provides a variety of gadgets to facilitate this.

In addition to the other outlets and media types, I get the “News in Cartoons,” which I greatly appreciate. Scanning through the cartoons, I often come across ones that directly relate to some topic that I have been discussing. Occasionally, I post these on blogs to illustrate certain points. The opening cartoon on this blog was published around the same time as our 73-year-old president was having a Twitter fight with 16-year-old Greta Thunberg (see the August 6, 2019 blog for more on Greta); I see it as ironically appropriate. The cartoon satirically advocates a quid pro quo from our children and grandchildren. They want us to fight climate change but what will they give us in return?

To get a bit more serious, let’s focus on dollars and cents and look at what kind of inheritance we are leaving future generations. If I search this blog for “economic impact” or “economic impact of climate change,” I find more than 50 entries.

Looking outside my blog, I am citing part of an opinion piece from The New York Times, written by Naomi Oreskes and Nicholas Stern. It describes a recent report, which argues that today’s economic reports strongly underestimate both short-term and especially long-term consequences of the costs of climate change to the economy. Nicholas Stern is also a co-author of the report:

“Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think”

Economists greatly underestimate the price tag on harsher weather and higher seas. Why is that?

For some time now it has been clear that the effects of climate change are appearing faster than scientists anticipated. Now it turns out that there is another form of underestimation as bad as or worse than the scientific one: the underestimating by economists of the costs.

The result of this failure by economists is that world leaders understand neither the magnitude of the risks to lives and livelihoods, nor the urgency of action. How and why this has occurred is explained in a recent report by scientists and economists at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

One reason is obvious: Since climate scientists have been underestimating the rate of climate change and the severity of its effects, then economists will necessarily underestimate their costs.

…Typically, our estimates of the value or cost of something, whether it is a pair of shoes, a loaf of bread or the impact of a hurricane, are based on experience. Statisticians call this “stationarity.” But when conditions change so much that experience is no longer a reliable guide to the future — when stationarity no longer applies — then estimates become more and more uncertain.

Hydrologists have recognized for some time that climate change has undermined stationarity in water management — indeed, they have declared that stationarity is dead. But economists have by and large not recognized that this applies to climate effects across the board. They approach climate damages as minor perturbations around an underlying path of economic growth, and take little account of the fundamental destruction that we might be facing because it is so outside humanity’s experience.

A second difficulty involves parameters that scientists do not feel they can adequately quantify, like the value of biodiversity or the costs of ocean acidification. Research shows that when scientists lack good data for a variable, even if they know it to be salient, they are loath to assign a value out of a fear that they would be “making it up.”

Therefore, in many cases, they simply omit it from the model, assessment or discussion. In economic assessments of climate change, some of the largest factors, like thresholds in the climate system, when a tiny change could tip the system catastrophically, and possible limits to the human capacity to adapt, are omitted for this reason. In effect, economists have assigned them a value of zero, when the risks are decidedly not.

…A third and terrifying problem involves cascading effects. One reason the harms of climate change are hard to fathom is that they will not occur in isolation, but will reinforce one another in damaging ways. In some cases, they may produce a sequence of serious, and perhaps irreversible, damage.

…In a worst-case scenario, climate impacts could set off a feedback loop in which climate change leads to economic losses, which lead to social and political disruption, which undermines both democracy and our capacity to prevent further climate damage. These sorts of cascading effects are rarely captured in economic models of climate impacts. And this set of known omissions does not, of course, include additional risks that we may have failed to have identified.

I will look deeper into the report next week. Meanwhile, if you want to read the whole thing, you can find it here.

This op-ed is so important that I felt it necessary to establish the credentials of the two authors. Stern’s biography on Wikipedia includes a description of what is known as the “Stern Report,” which serves today as one of the most influential attempts to analyze the economic impacts of climate change. Reading the piece above, I believe that the new report is a self-criticism of Stern’s original report.

Nicholas Stern

He is professor of economics and government and chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics (LSE), and 2010 Professor of Collège de France. From 2013–2017, he was President of the British Academy.

The Stern Review (2005–2006)[edit]

The Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change was produced by a team led by Stern at HM Treasury, and was released in October 2006. In the review, climate change is described as an economic externality. Stern has subsequently referred to the climate change externality as the largest ever market failure:

Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming … The problem of climate change involves a fundamental failure of markets: those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay[9]

Regulation, carbon taxes and carbon trading are recommended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is argued that the world economy can lower its greenhouse gas emissions at a significant but manageable cost. The review concludes that immediate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are necessary to reduce the worst risks of climate change. The review’s conclusions were widely reported in the press. Stern’s relatively large cost estimates of ‘business-as-usual’ climate change damages received particular attention.[10][11] These are the estimated damages that might occur should no further effort be made to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

There has been a mixed reaction to the Stern Review from economists. Several economists have been critical of the review,[12][13] for example, a paper by Byatt et al. (2006) describes the review as “deeply flawed”.[14] Some have supported the Review,[15][16] [17] while others have argued that Stern’s conclusions are reasonable, even if the method by which he reached them is incorrect.[18] The Stern Review team has responded to criticisms of the review in several papers.[19] Stern has also gone on to say that he underestimated the risks of climate change in the Stern Review.[20]

Stern’s approach to discounting has been debated amongst economists. The discount rate allows economic effects occurring at different times to be compared. Stern used a discount rate in his calculation of the effects of “business-as-usual” climate change damages. A high discount rate reduces the calculated benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Using too low a discount rate wastes resources because it will result in too much investment in cutting emissions (Arrow et al., 1996, p. 130).[21] Too high a discount rate will have the opposite effect, and lead to under-investment in cutting emissions. Most studies on the damages of climate change use a higher discount rate than that used in the Stern Review. Some economists support Stern’s choice of discount rate (Cline, 2008;[22] Shah, 2008[17] Heal, 2008)[23] while others are critical (Yohe and Tol, 2008;[24] Nordhaus, 2007).[25]

Another criticism of the Stern Review is that it is a political rather than an analytical document. Writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, columnist Charles Moore compared the Stern Review to the UK Government’s “dodgy dossier” on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.[26]

Naomi Oreskes

(born November 25, 1958)[1] is an American historian of science. She became Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University in 2013, after 15 years as Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego.[2] She has worked on studies of geophysics, environmental issues such as global warming, and the history of science. In 2010, Oreskes co-authored Merchants of Doubt which identified some parallels between the climate change debate and earlier public controversies.[3]

Clearly, Nicholas Stern’s aim with the op-ed was to guide people to the recent report. Short of that, he was appealing to policy makers and the general public to take the new analysis of the economic impact more seriously—hopefully helping to minimize it. It is a bit more puzzling to me why Naomi Oreskes is a co-author. She is neither a co-author of the recent report nor a member of one of the major institutions that sponsored it. My hypothesis is that she lent her familiarity with deniers to the strategy of grabbing people’s attention. Her book, Merchants of Doubt, is a must-read for anybody interested in the fights over tobacco, climate change, the ozone hole, and any other instances where science has come up against societal norms. While the article is several months old, the authors have since published a Q&A.

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Is California Unlivable?

A few weeks ago, I read an eye-opening op-ed in the NYT:

“It’s the end of California as we know it”By Farhad Manjoo

But lately my affinity for my home state has soured. Maybe it’s the smoke and the blackouts, but a very un-Californian nihilism has been creeping into my thinking. I’m starting to suspect we’re over. It’s the end of California as we know it. I don’t feel fine.

It isn’t just the fires — although, my God, the fires. Is this what life in America’s most populous, most prosperous state is going to be like from now on? Every year, hundreds of thousands evacuating, millions losing power, hundreds losing property and lives? Last year, the air near where I live in Northern California — within driving distance of some of the largest and most powerful and advanced corporations in the history of the world — was more hazardous than the air in Beijing and New Delhi. There’s a good chance that will happen again this month, and that it will keep happening every year from now on. Is this really the best America can do?

Now choking under the smoke of a changing climate, California feels stuck. We are BlackBerry after the iPhone, Blockbuster after Netflix: We’ve got the wrong design, we bet on the wrong technologies, we’ve got the wrong incentives, and we’re saddled with the wrong culture. The founding idea of this place is infinitude — mile after endless mile of cute houses connected by freeways and uninsulated power lines stretching out far into the forested hills. Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking.

I realized that I didn’t know the status of either BlackBerry or Blockbuster but the sentence sounded like a remembrance of things long dead. I checked on BlackBerry. The company is not dead but it shifted from being the dominant maker of smart phones to creating software and becoming an internet security service provider. Its stock plunged from 140 in the beginning of 2008 to around 5 today. Blockbuster, meanwhile, is down to one brick and mortar store (from 9,000 in the US at its peak) but has paired up (merged) with the satellite TV provider, DISH.

Mr. Manjoo laments the increasingly frequent and ever stronger California fires and their consequences: blackouts for millions, massive evacuations, hundreds of people’s lives and properties lost, and poisoned air.

The main question is whether the author represents a single voice among the 40 million Californians—or is expressing the feelings of a significant fraction of California’s residents—when he doubts its future livability.

Figure 1 shows the US states’ population growth from 1950-2016. California has grown by 271%, one of the highest rates in the US.

us-states-population-growth-rate, California

Figure 1

Figure 2 shows the more recent growth in population (2000-2017), GDP, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in California. Again, the growth in population and GDP is impressive, as is the state’s decline in climate change-causing GHG emissions. The latter serves as a great example to others.

Annual-California-Percent-Change-in-GDP-Population-and-Green-House-Gas-Emissions-20190813Figure 2

However, as we learn in our first lessons about investments, “Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance.” We know the history of California so far but we cannot make a perfect prediction with regards to its future.

One of the devastating impacts of the California fires that Mr. Manjoo cites is the PG&E utility company’s response:

In California, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) cut off power to 500,000 homes in 20 counties (with more to come). More than 2 million people could ultimately be left in the dark. PG&E is testing a new strategy to avoid last year’s killer wildfires, which left 1.8 million acres scorched and more than 100 dead, after its errant power lines touched off massive infernos, the worst toll in state history.

Now, the utility is shutting off the power. PG&E, accused of neglecting its infrastructure and the flammable vegetation near its power lines, faces forests left tinder-dry by a series of brutal droughts in the past decade. As the climate dries out the West, wildfires are burning hotter, longer, and bigger than before. Overwhelmed, the utility has decided its only strategy is to stop delivery of its essential service to millions.

I wrote a blog on December 18, 2018, about the Yellow Vest demonstrations in France. While at first glance the two matters might seem unrelated, I don’t believe that is the case:

There are large similarities (at least in my mind) between how these protests started and how atomic bombs explode. With atomic bombs, people use materials such as uranium (235) or plutonium (239), which are fissile elements – meaning that if suitable particles such as neutrons hit their nuclei, their nuclei will break – and in the process, will release more neutrons that will continue the reaction. That chain, in turn, releases a very large amount of energy that can be used to either power or destroy a big city. Where does the first neutron that starts this chain reaction come from? The answer is that these neutrons are all around, mostly originating from the sun. They don’t usually cause any harm but if the right conditions exist – such as a critical mass of fissionable elements – they can demolish a city. The same sort of questionable sensitivity to an initial trigger can be seen in deadly fires such as the ones that devastated California recently. People are still working hard to figure out who triggered the fires and how. Some potential culprits include utility companies (putting wires below trees), car drivers who cause sparks on the road, barbecuing tourists, etc. The fact is that if the conditions are right for wildfires, triggers will always be available in abundance.

Both situations started with tinderbox conditions (whether metaphorical or more physical) PG&E is accused of being the random neutron that set off these large fires. This accusation triggered massive lawsuits that led to a temporary bankruptcy. The company’s remedy was to turn off the lights for massive numbers of its customers.

There was another solution that really should have been implemented long ago: utility companies ought to have buried the electrical wires underground, effectively insulating them from the dry countryside. As usual, the obstacle to this massive undertaking was cost:

In the United States, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Rule 20 permits the undergrounding of electrical power cables under certain situations. Rule 20A projects are paid for by all customers of the utility companies. Rule 20B projects are partially funded this way and cover the cost of an equivalent overhead system. Rule 20C projects enable property owners to fund the undergrounding

Undergrounding is more expensive, since the cost of burying cables at transmission voltages is several times greater than overhead power lines, and the life-cycle cost of an underground power cable is two to four times the cost of an overhead power line. Above-ground lines cost around $10 per foot and underground lines cost in the range of $20 to $40 per foot.[7] In highly urbanized areas, the cost of underground transmission can be 10–14 times as expensive as overhead.[8] However, these calculations may neglect the cost of power interruptions. The lifetime cost difference is smaller for lower-voltage distribution networks, on the range of 12-28% higher than overhead lines of equivalent voltage.

This particular canary in the coal mine is dead—we can see the consequences of inaction—fires and blackouts are already becoming commonplace and we must take notice. It’s past time to bury our utility lines. We cannot put the price of the future on layaway. We have to pay it now or be disconnected from the electric grid on a yearly basis. Alternatively, we could leave the state entirely but every year the impact will expand farther and farther; eventually, we will run out of places to go.

The electric wires were not the only possible triggers that were removed. Cigarette smoking bans followed:

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday did what two of his predecessors refused to do: He prohibited smoking and vaping in most areas of California state parks and beaches.

People caught using cigarettes, cigars, pipes or electronic cigarettes will face a fine of up to $25 under a bill signed by the governor and authored by state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), who cited the public risk of exposure to chemicals in tobacco smoke.

While this measure is laudable both from a public health and a fire risk perspective, it will ultimately be futile with regards to the latter. Once a critical mass of burnable countryside accumulates, it is almost impossible to prevent the devastating fires by trying to eliminate possible triggers. Like the neutrons in fissionable uranium, sooner or later they will show up in some form or another.

Insurance companies make money by predicting the future and gauging the likelihood of various disasters. But they also have to pay out when something actually goes wrong. Some of these companies started to cancel insurance policies in locations that are now obviously susceptible to accelerating risk from the strong negative impacts of climate change. California quickly outlawed this practice but, “government regulators are struggling with their own conundrum: They must balance the need to protect consumers from high insurance rates with the need to keep insurance companies from going out of business entirely.”

The message: insurance companies must bear the cost of the impacts of climate change. Those companies that don’t want to carry a similar burden to that PG&E is under now have an option—leave the state completely and relocate to an environment with less risk (and most likely less reward).

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published the “WMO Provisional Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019” : the climate change impacts that are the primary causes for the high temperature and droughts that exacerbate the massive fires are accelerating:

More devastating fires in California. Persistent drought in the Southwest. Record flooding in Europe and Africa. A heat wave, of all things, in Greenland.”

Climate change and its effects are accelerating, with climate related disasters piling up, season after season.

“Things are getting worse,” said Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization, which on Tuesday issued its annual state of the global climate report, concluding a decade of what it called exceptional global heat. “It’s more urgent than ever to proceed with mitigation.”

But reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change will require drastic measures, Dr. Taalas said. “The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in power production, industry and transportation,” he said.

California is not unique in its responsibility to try to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We all have to do it and do it now. In the next series of blogs I will try to summarize how our outlooks on the economic consequences of the deteriorating climate are changing.

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Back to “Self-Inflicted Genocide”: Roger Hallam & the Holocaust

My original plan was to follow up on last week’s blog and look into the recurring complexities of the California fires. In light of the major power outages, some residents have gone so far as to claim that California has lost its capability to support human activity. As happens so often, however, I realigned my priorities based on more recent news. In this case, it was a New York Times article about climate change activist Roger Hallam diminishing the horrors of the Holocaust that brought me up short:

LONDON — A founder of the climate activism group Extinction Rebellion apologized on Thursday for the “crass words” he used to describe the Holocaust as “an almost normal event” and just another ugly episode in human history.

The founder, Roger Hallam, said in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit that among various genocides that had occurred in previous centuries, the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed millions of Jews during World War II, was not that unusual.

“The fact is that in our history, millions of people have been regularly killed under dire circumstances,” Mr. Hallam, who is British, said in excerpts published online on Wednesday. “To be honest, you could say: This is an almost normal event.”

Mr. Hallam’s remarks were made ahead of the German publication of his book, “Common Sense for the 21st Century.” In the book, which was published in Britain in September, he draws parallels between the Holocaust and the threats posed by the climate crisis.

Luisa Neubauer, a German climate activist with the group Fridays for Future, told the German newspaper Bild that such words were “insane.” She said in a phone interview on Thursday, “No matter who says those words, it is doing harm to our democracy, to our understanding of the past and the incredible crimes that have been committed.”

Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, wrote on Twitter using the hashtag #ExtinctionRebellion, “The Holocaust is more than millions of dead and horrific torture methods.” He added, “We must always be aware of that so we can be certain: never again!”

After I read the piece, I looked at my wife and told her to prepare for somebody using my activities on this blog as a reason to fire me from my job. Among other things, I teach students about climate change and specifically describe the future prospects of business as usual climate change as a “self-inflicted genocide.” She looked at me with a smile and assured me she would support me. Furthermore, she said, there was a big distinction between my teaching and Mr. Hallam’s statements, so it was unlikely my job was in jeopardy. For starters, I don’t belittle the Holocaust. Rather, I warn about the ever-worsening impacts of business as usual practices on climate change and their ultimate conclusion without coordinated global mitigation efforts. I thanked her for her encouragement but nevertheless found it necessary to compare myself to Mr. Hallam.

Self-Inflicted Genocide

In my first blog (April 22, 2012), I tried to establish the connections between my own experiences in the Holocaust and my work on climate change. I concluded with the following paragraph:

Arnold Toynbee wrote that civilizations die from suicides, not murder. Even if the predicted consequences of “business as usual” environmental scenarios over the next 70 years turn out to be wrong in some details and even slightly wrong in timing, it’s clear that once we pass a critical point in the ability of the planet to adapt to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the consequences amount to global suicide – a self-inflicted genocide. We know what we must do to mitigate this possible future genocide, but we need our collective will to do so. We can’t allow the deniers to win again.

 The last two sentences in that paragraph weren’t the start of my attempt to associate possible future consequences of unmitigated climate change with the Holocaust. It is a theme I have been discussing for over ten years. I have covered it in almost every talk that I have given on both topics and included it in the last chapter of the 2011 book that I wrote about climate change (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now – Momentum Press). I started this blog more than 7 years ago as another platform to broaden the reach of my warning. I strongly believe that my background provides me with the responsibility to spread this message.

The first blog provoked 82 responses, which I encourage you to revisit. The sizeable reaction forced me to follow up with more details. The two blogs that followed (May 7 and May 14, 2012) received 63 and 61 responses, respectively.

Today, a search on this blog for the term, “self-inflicted genocide” will yield 23 entries.

Three years ago, a group of students from the University of Pennsylvania who were trying to convince the university’s trustees to stop investing in fossil fuels read some of my material and invited me to take part in a panel about the topic. I joined them on December 1, 2016 to address the theme: Is Fossil Fuel Use A Moral Evil? Following the talk, Chris Doyle, one of the organizers of the event, summarized the arguments in a local paper. I am including some excerpts here:

The use and manufacture of fossil fuels is often criticized as irresponsible and destructive — but rarely is it compared to genocide.

Student activist group Fossil Free Penn hosted a discussion focused on the validity of this harrowing comparison Thursday, following the Trustee’s September decision not to divest from fossil fuels. In a letter written to Fossil Free Penn on the day of the decision, Chairman of the Trustees David L. Cohen said the activities of fossil fuel companies do not constitute a “moral evil” that is “on par with apartheid or genocide.”

The night’s featured speakers were Penn German professor Simon Richter and physical chemistry Ph.D. and Holocaust survivor, Micha Tomkiewicz.

An active promoter of climate change awareness and researcher of alternative energy, Tomkiewicz said the comparison between fossil fuel and genocide is not entirely apt. He said making such a comparison would require proof of mal-intent, which he said cannot be found in either fossil fuel producers or consumers.

Further, he warned that the exaggerated references to events like the Holocaust weaken the anti-fossil fuel campaign.

“Using this comparison usually means you lost the argument,” Tomkiewicz said.

Tomkiewicz explained that if fossil fuel consumption continues at its current rate, it could eventually meet the definition of a moral evil. According to his analysis, current greenhouse gas emissions threaten the human race with profound disaster and could mean the end for different peoples and cultures around the globe.

Continuing to neglect the issue of climate change would qualify as implicit intent, tantamount to “self-inflicted genocide,” he said.

“The fact that everybody knows about it, yet still chooses politically to continue, and not care what will happen sixty to seventy years from now, to me, constitutes intent,” Tomkiewicz said. “So for all practical purposes, not right now [fossil fuel use] constitutes a genocide, but [it will] if we continue with business as usual.”

Reactions

As you can see from the roughly 200 combined comments my first three blogs garnered, this line of comparisons has plenty of proponents and opponents. Nor were the comments and responses confined to the comments section or academic presentations.

I also received copies of three anti-Semitic caricatures in my mailbox at the University. I am including one here to illustrate the depth of Holocaust denial and hatred of Jews.

Anti-Semitic Cartoon

Figure 1 – An anti-Semitic cartoon denying the Holocaust

It is important to note that, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains:

…Holocaust denial is not simply a gross distortion of the facts, but is also a pernicious form of anti-Semitic hate speech that serves no other purpose than to attack Jews…

…We are talking here about a conspiracy theory which argues that Jews around the world knowingly fabricated evidence of their own genocide in order to extract reparations money from Germany, gain world sympathy and facilitate the theft of Palestinian land for the creation of Israel. It is founded on the belief that Jews are able to force governments, Hollywood, the media and academia to promote a lie at the expense of non-Jews.

My experiences with the consequences of comparing the Holocaust to climate change are different from those that Mr. Hallam is currently facing. I am not in as public or prominent of a position, so I didn’t get the attention of the foreign minister of a major country or cancellations of previous commitments to publish my work. Granted, I also didn’t try to make the comparison based on the actual number of victims. My use of the term self-inflicted genocide refers to the relatively distant future, while the Holocaust refers to a confirmed past event.

That said, any connection between the Holocaust and climate change invokes strong reactions. I am not alone in linking the two—the concluding chapter of Timothy Snyder’s 2015 book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning also warns of climate change—but I was one of the first to do so. I also have significant “credentials” with regard to both the Holocaust and climate change.

Tymothy Snyder's book

Figure 2 – Timothy Snyder’s book

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two months from now, on January 27, 2020, we will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is an international memorial day on 27 January commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jewish people, 2 million Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session.[1] The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust.[2]

On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated by the Red Army.

Resolution 60/7 establishing 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day urges every member nation of the U.N. to honor the memory of Holocaust victims, and encourages the development of educational programs about Holocaust history to help prevent future acts of genocide. It rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an event and condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief. It also calls for actively preserving the Holocaust sites that served as Nazi death camps, concentration camps, forced labor camps and prisons, as well as for establishing a U.N. programme of outreach and mobilization of society for Holocaust remembrance and education.

As we think about the tragedies of the past, let’s also start planning for ways to prevent those of the future.

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Extreme Weather: Fires and Floods

I have been busy analyzing global data about the ongoing energy transition to a more sustainable world. In addition to reflecting on my whirlwind (and worldwide) trip (September 4, 2019 blog), I wanted to look into global indicators with my two climate classes at Brooklyn College. I was also scheduled to give a talk on the role of game theory in the energy transition and decided to survey the current conditions.

Last week’s blog was the last in that series. Since then, a virtual avalanche of climate-related extreme weather events has taken place.

To start with, it’s fire season in California:

Utility companies have been taking steps to avoid the blame they experienced last year by preemptively cutting power. Below, Wikipedia summarizes:

The 2019 wildfire season is the current-running fire season in California. So far, over 6,402 fires have been recorded according to Cal Fire and the US Forest Service, totaling an estimated of 250,349 acres (101,313 ha) of burned land as of November 3.[1] Although the 2019 fire season had been relatively quiet in California through mid-September as compared to past years,[3] October through December is still expected to have the greatest fire potential as the Diablo winds and the Santa Ana winds pick up.[4]

In late October, the Kincade Fire became the largest fire of the year, burning 77,758 acres (31,468 ha) in Sonoma County by November 6.

Massive preemptive public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events have been controversial. PG&E and other power utilities have preemptively shut off power to over one million residents due to perceived risk of wildfires starting in high winds due to high-voltage power lines. While large areas have been without power for days, people in fire danger areas had trouble getting updates and critical life support equipment would not work without backup power.[5]

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is also facing raging fires:

Three paragraphs from a Nature Conservancy article published on August 30, 2019 explain:

Farmers have been using fire, illegally in many cases, to convert rainforest into ranchland and crop farms for decades, a process known as deforestation. There have been more total fires than 2019’s fires five times since 2004. But deforestation and habitat fragmentation from these other years of fires have led to hotter and drier conditions that make it easier for fire here to spread. Coupled with a lack of oversight, these fires have reached an unprecedented and reckless scale.

Fire has shaped the diversity of life on the planet. Many landscapes depend on fires set by lightning strikes or humans (Indigenous peoples have managed forests sustainably for thousands of years) to keep them healthy and reduce the amount of fuel that can cause a catastrophic mega-fire. Australia’s grasslands and Oregon’s Ponderosa pine forests are examples of fire-adapted landscapes.

The Amazon Rainforest, however, is not a landscape where fire plays a natural role. The humidity and moisture of the rainforest do not lead lightning strikes to often cause fires here, and the plant and animal residents here are not adapted for it. These fires pose direct threats to the rainforest’s biodiversity and its Indigenous peoples, and also can harm the air quality of people throughout South America.

Australia too has fires:

Nature Conservancy also mentions fires in Australia: Australian authorities urge evacuations ahead of ‘catastrophic’ fire threat.

I have discussed many of these types of recurring extreme weather phenomena here before. For example, I looked at the Australian fire season in the February 12, 2019 blog.

Indonesia has both fires and floods:

Indonesia is not only dealing with similarly devastating fires, it is also sinking into the ground. Parts of Jakarta are expected to be completely underwater within thirty years.

NYT: JAKARTA, Indonesia — Nearly 2,000 wildfires are burning across Indonesia, turning the sky blood red over central Sumatra and creating dense clouds of smoke that have caused respiratory problems for nearly a million people.

The blazes, which tore through sensitive rain forests where dozens of endangered species live, have drawn comparisons to the wildfires in the Amazon basin that have destroyed more than 2 million acres. This year’s fires are the worst in Indonesia since 2015. Officials estimate that the fires have burned more than 800,000 acres.

TIME: The Indonesian capital of Jakarta is home to 10 million people but it is also one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world. If this goes unchecked, parts of the megacity could be entirely submerged by 2050, say researchers. Is it too late?

It sits on swampy land, the Java Sea lapping against it, and 13 rivers running through it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that flooding is frequent in Jakarta and, according to experts, it is getting worse. But it’s not just about freak floods, this massive city is literally disappearing into the ground.

India is yo-yoing between floods and drought:

Throughout India, the number of days with very heavy rains has increased over the last century. At the same time, the dry spells between storms have gotten longer. Showers that reliably penetrate the soil are less common.

Venice is Sinking:

Likewise, the “City of Water” is more than living up to its moniker, facing the disaster of global sea level rise.

“Venice is like a canary in a coal mine,” said Sergio Fagherazzi, a coastal geomorphologist at Boston University, who also grew up in the northern Italian city. “It’s possible to apply the same concept in the U.S., and it’s very relevant now for any low-lying area.”

As climate change causes sea levels in Venice — and across the planet — to steadily inch higher, scientists say catastrophic floods could become more severe and more frequent, with some parts of the city being inundated on a daily basis.

This week’s flooding stemmed from unusually high tides exacerbated by the gravitational effects of the full moon and strong, 62-mph winds that whipped up a higher-than-expected storm surge. On Tuesday, water levels reached 6 feet 2 inches — the highest in 53 years and just 2 inches shy of matching the record of 6 feet 4 inches that was set in November 1966.

In a bit of tragic irony that reflects the denier mindset, Venice’s regional council rejected a plan to combat climate change on November 12th and the city subsequently flooded:

Sharing pictures of the room as water entered, Andrea Zanoni, the Democratic party’s deputy chairman of the council’s environment committee, wrote on Facebook: “Ironically, the chamber was flooded two minutes after the majority parties rejected our proposals to tackle climate change.”

Are there common climate factors in these extreme weather events?

Very much so, say the scientists.“The overall climate signal is that if you have it warmer, it is easier to burn; if you have higher seas, it is easier to flood,” said Prof Gabi Hegerl. “And if you have more moisture in the atmosphere, the same rainfall systems rain harder – that is something we see globally and that has a human greenhouse gas signal in it.”In extreme events, that’s where climate change bites us.”

The very scientific sounding Clausius-Clapeyron equation is one key element. Clausius and Clapeyron are the surnames of the German and French meteorologists who discovered that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. For every 1 degree C increase in temperature, the air can hold about 7% extra water vapor.

When you get the sorts of storms that generate rapid cooling, you get heavier rain falling rapidly out of the clouds, as happened in parts of England last week.

“As temperatures are warmer we get more intense rain, which by itself brings more floods, even if the number of storms hitting our shores don’t change,” said Prof Piers Forster from the University of Leeds.

“When coupled to warmer, wetter winters generally, as expected from climate change, the ground becomes more saturated so any rainfall will give a greater chance of flooding.”

“Stronger winds, again associated with more energy in the climate system, add to the fire risk and make them more intense and faster moving.”

There are multiple factors in all of these events. Humans play an important role—whether directly or indirectly—by way of their contributions to climate change. President Obama’s Science Advisor, John Holdren, testified before the US Senate regarding some of these direct connections (April 1, 2014 blog).

I had planned to delve into California’s recent strategy of disconnecting more than a million customers from the power grid as a precautionary step to prevent fire ignition next week but changed my mind when I read an article in the NYT. Instead, I will return to my continuous struggle to connect climate change with my Holocaust experience.

Meanwhile, to my American readers: have a happy Thanksgiving!

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Electricity in Developing Countries: Biomass and Availability

I have been following a set of fifteen countries over the past month (starting on October 15th). Together, they make up approximately 65% of the global population. I split them into three groups, based on income. The largest of these (in terms of population), which includes India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria, constitutes about 29% of the global population. I have used all fifteen countries in my analysis of the global energy transition and use of electricity but there are fundamental differences that relate directly to the countries’ wealth.

Electricity use in the high- and middle-income countries is universal. Electricity availability in the low-income countries is not. Figure 1 shows this metric:

electricity, available, availability, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria

Figure 1 – Recent electricity availability in five large low-income countries, as a function of population

The shift to electricity in these countries did not come from environmental considerations or the discovery of new technologies. They simply realized that in the modern world, many things that we take for granted in a developed country are impossible without electricity.

More than ten years ago, I worked with a group of friends to film a society in a developing country as it transitioned from a mainly hunter-gatherer existence to an electricity-driven, modern civilization. The result was a series of short documentaries: “Quest for Light,” “Quest for Energy,” and “Beyond the Grid.” I wrote about these efforts in earlier blogs.

Here are some excerpts from my April 29, 2014 blog, which I also cited on February 25, 2015:

I was able to interest a colleague of mine, Prof. Vinit Parmar from our film department, and we went exploring. We went to a region of India called the Sundarbans, which is part of the West Bengal State, near the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). The region is shared by India and Bangladesh and is the home of one of the world’s largest deltas, formed by the outlets of the Ganges, the Brahmaphutra and the Meghna rivers into the Bay of Bengal. About 4 million people live on the Indian side of the border. The land’s topography has made it difficult to extend the Indian electrical grid, and until 1995 most of the inhabitants lived a Hunter-Gatherer way of life: “hunting” fish and gathering honey in the Mangrove forest. Around 1995, the Indian government (with some help from the US government) decided to do something about it and try to deliver electricity to the region. They decided to do it by skipping the coal stage, instead delivering the electricity in the most sustainable way that the budget would allow.

We tried to monitor this process through a documentary film; to accomplish this we needed some help but the result, along with the full list of contributors, can be seen in the short film, “Quest for Energy.”

The film illustrates the initial delivery of electricity in the small town of Gosaba. This delivery comes by way of a micro-grid that runs through some of the main streets in town. Here, the micro-grid doesn’t function as an additional, supplemental aspect of the main grid. In fact, since in this case, the micro-grid is the only grid, in a sense, it resembles the main grid in the US more than 100 years ago. The proliferation of micro-grids in rich countries is a boon to developing countries like India because it promotes further exploration and improvement of such technology. Hopefully these innovations will continue to be applicable not only in rich countries, where the micro-grids function mostly as a form of adaptation, but also in poor countries where in many regions they are the only game in town.

The most recent of these documentaries is “Beyond the Grid,” which came out in 2017.

Figure 2 – The movie poster

The area of the Sundarbans went through a rapid transition with the introduction of electricity, even though the mini-grid they created only covered the main streets of the town. The primary source of energy used to power the generators was wood, cut from the mangrove trees that grow in the forest nearby that bridges India and Bangladesh. The forest serves as a home to the few Bengal tigers that still exist in the area.

Fortunately, the local government was fully aware of the danger climate change poses to the region and how cutting these trees could accelerate climate change. I found it refreshing that the area’s politicians didn’t resort to the argument that I often hear in high-income countries—that they are just a small area with a negligible impact on the global climate. In an effort to make the practice more sustainable, the locals started weighing the wood before they burned it and planting new trees to replace those being used to make the electricity.

In technical terms, the wood is a traditional biomass. Traditional biomasses are especially important sources of energy in low-income countries because they tend to be cheaper and easier to gather than resources such as coal, natural gas, and oil. This particular use can be sustainable if the plants are annuals because they can use the carbon dioxide released to grow (powered by the photosynthetic process). Within a year, burning one plant releases the same amount of carbon dioxide that another can then absorb. Meanwhile, it produces energy, whose uses include cooking, heating or powering an electric generator. With forests, there can be a similar balance between capturing the carbon dioxide and releasing it through burning, but the cycle is longer and typically lasts closer to 20 years.

*It is important to note that this traditional setup is only sustainable if the plants grow in a fast enough cycle (in less than one generation) to capture all the carbon the burning produces.

Meanwhile, some developing countries are using a different cycle. Cows eat grass that grows photo-synthetically via the capture of carbon dioxide (the process of photosynthesis). Their digestion then releases whatever carbon the animal does not need for its own nutrition. From there, people have the option to convert the cow dung into gas (mostly methane), which can then be distributed for various uses such as cooking.

Figure 3, taken from a 2004 publication from the International Conference for Renewable Energies in Bonn, shows the global use of traditional biomasses as a function of the percentage of each country’s population that lives on a budget below $2US/day. Table 1, taken from the same source, shows the changes in the regional use of this type of biomass from 1971 to 2001. These changes reflect the countries’ economic development.

Figure 3

We can see that populations with lower incomes (in the right half of the graph) tend toward higher consumption of traditional biomasses.

Table 1

With the exception of broader groupings of the OECD and Non-OECD Europe, the regions shown above have significantly lowered their reliance on biomasses as a primary energy source. This is indicative of their economic progress because it means that they now have the resources to seek out alternatives, whether those are fossil fuels or renewables.

This blog concludes my attempt to analyze the current situation and prospects of the global energy transition. I will return to my routine of writing on climate-related events that capture my interest.

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Carbon Footprints and Carbon Intensity: a Summary

Last week I strayed a bit from my series about the markers of our global energy transition, in which I have examined 15 populous countries in three income groups. When possible, I have used data from the World Bank. This particular dataset spans from the year 2000 to 2014, the last year for which I was able to find all the required data for all 15 countries.

Today, I am returning to my original format to examine carbon footprints over the same period and summarize what we found in the last few blogs. Again, the data are from the World Bank and are shown in Figures 1-4. All four graphs present the data in terms of the ratio between carbon footprints (in kg of carbon dioxide) and primary energy (in kg of oil equivalent). I labeled this ratio carbon intensity.

Figure 1 shows global carbon intensity. It rises through 2011, with a dip between 2008 and 2010, and falls again starting in 2012. The overall rise is a modest 6%, as compared to a global GDP growth of 40% in constant US$ (2010 value) over the same period of time.

Figure 1

This last decline in global carbon intensity coincided with a 6% rise in global GDP in constant US$ from 2012 to 2014. In short: less CO2 output along with higher GDP. That means that globally we are making progress.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

To summarize the last few blogs (from October 15th), two main indicators for the energy transition have emerged: electricity intensity (kWh/kg oil equivalent) and primary energy use. Both have major impacts on the carbon footprints of the three income groups that we see here.

Electricity intensity (October 15th blog) in the high-income category, grew by about 15% while the primary energy use (October 22nd blog) declined over this period. In the United Kingdom, it declined by 25%; in Japan and the US, it was by 15%.

In the middle-income category, we saw a sharp rise in electricity intensity in China (64%) and a smaller rise in Turkey (29%). The other three countries in this category showed approximately flat trends. However, these countries showed major increases in the use of primary energy, with China at the top (+150%) and the four other countries in the category increasing by lesser amounts.

We saw a sharp rise (67%) in the electricity intensity of low-income countries India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, while Nigeria and Pakistan show a flat trend. In terms of primary energy use, India and Bangladesh showed increases of up to 50%. Meanwhile, Indonesia has risen by around 20%. Nigeria and Pakistan have also risen, albeit by considerably smaller numbers.

Electricity access in the low-income group of countries is far from universal; most of the changes in electricity use in these countries has very little to do with environmental considerations. Instead, it reflects an increase in GDP, which gives them the resources to extend electrical access. I’ll talk about this issue separately next week.

In the meantime, last Monday the US gave a formal notice to the UN of its intention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement. The withdrawal will be finalized a year after this notification, on November 4, 2020—one day after the 2020 presidential election. By that time, the US will be the only country in the world not to participate. Under the agreement, the US had committed to reduce its carbon footprint by 26-28% by 2025, compared to its 2005 output. In 2014, the US had already reduced its carbon footprint by 16%, using the same metrics. The US also promised in the agreement that it would contribute 3 billion US$ to the Green Climate Fund (see the June 20, 2017 blog), an entity that was designed to facilitate climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Two days before President Obama left office, he was able to transfer $500 million as the second installment of the contribution, leaving the US 2 billion US$ short of its commitment. Meanwhile, in addition to quitting the agreement, President Trump is trying to get that one billion US$ back.

Stay tuned!

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