The Paris Commitments and What to Expect

Figure 1 – IEA-projected impact of the Paris Agreement on the global energy sector

The Paris Agreement, negotiated at the end of 2015, is the current anchor of global efforts to mitigate anthropogenic contributions to climate change (December 14, 2015 blog). The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently outlined the agreement’s impact on the global energy sector. Figure 1 illustrates those projections for the year 2040.

Here is the most recent status (March 9, 2017) of the agreement, as reported by the IPCC:

The Paris Agreement  entered into force on 4 November 2016, thirty days after the date on which at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 % of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession with the Depositary.

It’s been almost two months since President Trump’s inauguration. He’s been busy on many fronts; climate change is obviously not at the top of his agenda. Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry are his head of the EPA and energy secretary as of February 2nd and March 2nd, respectively. In spite of their short time in office, there are clear trends. Here are some climate-change-related actions that the new government has already taken:

President Donald Trump signed executive orders backing the construction of two unnecessarily controversial energy infrastructure projects: the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline.

Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to announce as early as this week the reopening of a review of the rules that were set by the Obama administration for the 2022-2025 period.

Automakers say the changes, which would raise the fleet average fuel efficiency to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 from 27.5 mpg in 2010, will impose significant costs and are out of step with consumer preferences. They argue they need more flexibility to meet the rules amid low gas prices.

President Trump on Thursday signed legislation ending a key Obama administration coal mining rule. The bill quashes the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, a regulation to protect waterways from coal mining waste that officials finalized in December.

  • Restructuring of the EPA (Scott Pruitt seems intent on building an EPA leadership that is fundamentally at odds with the officials who carry out the agency’s missions):

In the days since, Mr. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built a career out of suing the agency he now leads, has moved to stock the top offices of the agency with like-minded conservatives — many of them skeptics of climate change and all of them intent on rolling back environmental regulations that they see as overly intrusive and harmful to business.

Mr. Pruitt has drawn heavily from the staff of his friend and fellow Oklahoma Republican, Senator James Inhofe, long known as Congress’s most prominent skeptic of climate science. A former Inhofe chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, will be Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff. Another former Inhofe staff member, Byron Brown, will serve as Mr. Jackson’s deputy. Andrew Wheeler, a fossil fuel lobbyist and a former Inhofe chief of staff, is a finalist to be Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, although he requires confirmation to the position by the Senate.

Top Trump advisers are split on the Paris Agreement

WASHINGTON — The White House is fiercely divided over President Trump’s campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris agreement, the 2015 accord that binds nearly every country to curb global warming, with more moderate voices maintaining that he should stick with the agreement despite his campaign pledge.

Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s senior adviser, is pressing the president to officially pull the United States from the landmark accord, according to energy and government officials with knowledge of the debate. But, they say, he is clashing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who fear the move could have broad and damaging diplomatic ramifications.

Meanwhile, Tillerson’s reluctance to show himself, much less comment or answer questions publicly, makes him practically invisible as well as nearly impossible to pin down. Our fate, as well as that of, our children, grandchildren, and fellow citizens of the world, seems to rest on the beautiful shoulders of Ivanka Trump. I wish the best to all of us.

Here are the Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) of the individual countries to the Paris Agreement.

The US commitments are summarized in the figure below.

Figure 2

Here is what the US will need to do if the new administration decides to withdraw from the agreement:

WITHDRAWAL UNDER THE TERMS OF THE PARIS AGREEMENT As a matter of both international law and U.S. law, the president could withdraw from the Paris Agreement pursuant to Article 28.1, which allows a party to withdraw by giving one year’s written notification to the Depositary (i.e., the U.N. Secretary-General), beginning three years after the Paris Agreement’s entry into force for that party. A party need not provide any reason or justification for withdrawing; the only limitations imposed by the Paris Agreement relate to timing. The Paris Agreement will come into force on November 4, 2016. This means that starting on November 4, 2019, the president could give written notice of withdrawal, and the withdrawal would take effect one year later, on November 4, 2020.

WITHDRAWAL FROM THE UNFCCC A second option, which would enable the president to withdraw from the Paris Agreement more quickly, would be to withdraw from its parent agreement, the UNFCCC. Article 25.1 of the UNFCCC allows parties to withdraw by giving one year’s notice. Article 28.3 of the Paris Agreement further provides that “any party that withdraws from the Convention shall be considered as also having withdrawn from this Agreement.” Thus, a president could withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement in only a year, by giving notice of withdrawal from the UNFCCC.

We will keep watching.

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Back to Energy Transition: Data

February in Brooklyn (Taken on our terrace toward the end of the month)

It’s high time we return to climate change and the Anthropocene.

My first target is the continuous availability of relevant data. The Anthropocene and climate change are both arguably current and/or coming global events. Given the leading role that the US plays in managing this new era and the most recent changes in our government, I will aim my focus here.

Before his speech to the joint session of Congress, the President confirmed he would ask for an increase in defense spending to the extent of $54 billion and $1 trillion toward infrastructure rebuilding, as well as major tax cuts and the construction of a wall on the Mexican border. Of course, in theory, these new expenditures would occur with no increase in the budget deficit and without affecting entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. All the money should come from discretionary funds currently allocated to various government departments/agencies and (hopefully) from economic growth. Two of the most often mentioned early targets for major cuts are the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is especially likely given Rick Perry’s recent approval as the new Secretary of Energy and Scott Pruitt’s induction as head of the EPA; both men have long, consistent records as climate change deniers.

The EIA (an agency run by the Department of Energy) and the EPA are the two main depositories of data on climate change. The budget will have to be approved by Congress but it will not be much of a surprise for data and educational material on climate change to be some of the first casualties of the budget shrinking process. The attempt to remove climate change from public discussion and our subsequent blinding to the issue are likely consequences. Collectively, we are alarmed by evidence of hacking of our electronic databases. Major cyber-hacking took place in the financial sector (Chase-Morgan), industrial firms (Sony), communication firms (Yahoo), retail outlets (Target), and other sectors. Many culprits were associated with Russia and China. The masking of our governmental databases amounts to a kind of hacking, albeit one that is self-inflicted. By hiding or distorting such information with the purpose of blocking actions that mitigate the impact of the real data, our government acts in a similar fashion to hackers who would use the information for their own nefarious purposes.

States are taking the lead in preventing cyber-hacking. Here is an example from my own state of New York:

A new regulation enters into force today in the state of New York, obliging bankers to keep consumer data secure from hackers. All financial firms must now meet strict minimum standards on cyber-security and notify the regulator of any data breach within 72 hours; they potentially face liability if their data-protection is later found lacking

States and cities will probably have to take leadership roles in countering our Federal self-inflicted hacking. Governmental self-imposed distortion of statistical information is not new. In fact, it often constitutes one of the most visible signs of a failed state. Since much of this information is important globally there are continuous efforts to spot such distortions as well as attempts to ratify such data. For example:

Conventional wisdom has it that governments may lie strategically to the public about economic data that they collect and provide. The accusations that Greece and Italy tinkered with their budget deficit figures before joining the Euro zone provide anecdotal examples. Argentina has been suspected of understating inflation figures since mid–2007. The Hungarian government, according to its prime minister in a statement that leaked out, lied to the general public about the state of the economy to win the elections in 2006. Ukraine misreported the level of reserves to the International Monetary Fund between 1996 and 1998. China is believed to embellish its GDP growth numbers. Even the United States came under scrutiny after GDP growth revisions were consistently negative in the crisis that started in 2008.1 At times governments are caught red-handed (Hungary or Ukraine), but most of the time it is simply unclear whether the data that are provided to the public are just inaccurate (because of, say, measurement errors or bad data collection methods) or suffer from deliberate alterations. In some cases, misinforming economic agents may bring tangible (possibly short-term) gains for a government; for example, Argentina by misstating inflation figures avoided paying out higher interest on government bonds indexed to inflation (which should have constituted in fact a partial default) and raising the wages in the public sector. Greece enjoyed lower borrowing rates (close to Germany’s) on its government debt because of its Euro zone membership and because investors did not know the entire extent of Greek budget troubles. Given these examples, there are two important questions to ask. Is it possible to find instances when countries or groups of countries engage in misinforming economic agents? Is there some common characteristic that is shared by these countries?

The authors suggest some ways to detect false statistical reports.

A similar investigative process in the US has already started with economic data:

Budget cuts already have forced some federal agencies to pare back the collection of economic statistics that measure shifts in population, incomes, demographics and other factors that drive change.

In the first week after Inauguration Day, gag orders limiting public disclosures were imposed on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and even the National Park Service.

President Trump wouldn’t admit that the U.S. jobless rate fell to 4.7 percent at the end of the Obama years. Solution: Declare that the “real” unemployment rate stands at 42 percent.

Before things get worse, I will use this forum to summarize the kind of information related to climate change that one can currently find on the EIA and the EPA sites. I will revisit these sites periodically to follow up on the changes.

The EIA site:

EIA receives funding for its activities with an annual appropriation from Congress. EIA’s budget request falls under the purview of the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Energy and Water Development.

The fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget provides $122 million for EIA, a $5 million increase over EIA’s funding level in FY 2015. The FY 2016 funding maintains EIA’s core energy statistics, analysis, and forecasting programs, including many significant accomplishments in FY 2015, while also allowing the agency to address other critical information needs, including:

Daily Product

  • Today in Energy

Weekly Products

  • Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report
    (principal Federal economic indicator)
  • This Week in Petroleum
  • Natural Gas Weekly Update
  • Weekly Coal Production Report
  • Weekly Petroleum Status Report
  • Gasoline and Diesel Fuel Update

Monthly Products

  • Short-Term Energy Outlook
  • Natural Gas Monthly
  • Drilling Productivity Report
  • Electric Power Monthly
  • Electricity Monthly Update
  • Monthly Energy Review
  • Petroleum Supply Monthly
  • Petroleum Marketing Monthly
  • Monthly Biodiesel Production
  • U.S. Movements of Crude Oil by Rail

Quarterly Products

  • Quarterly Coal Report
  • Quarterly Coal Distribution Report
  • Domestic Uranium Production Quarterly Report

Annual Products

  • Annual Energy Outlook
  • International Energy Outlook
  • Natural Gas Annual
  • Annual Coal Report
  • U.S. Crude Oil and Natural Gas Proved Reserves
  • Electric Power Annual
  • U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions
  • Petroleum Supply Annual

Other Products, Tools, and Services

  • State Energy Portal
  • Country Energy Portal
  • U.S. Energy Mapping System
  • Electricity Data Browser
  • Petroleum Imports Browser
  • Coal Data Browser
  • API (Application Programming Interface)
  • Excel Add-In
  • Energy in Brief
  • Energy Explained
  • Energy Kids

Special Analyses (examples)

  • Analysis of the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012
  • The Availability and Price of Petroleum and Petroleum Products Produced in Countries Other Than Iran
  • Sales of Fossil Fuels Produced from Federal and Indian Lands, FY 2003 through FY 201Potential Impacts of Reductions in Refinery Activity on Northeast Petroleum Product Market
  • Effect of Increased Natural Gas Exports on Domestic Energy Markets

The EPA site:

  • Acid Rain
  • Bed Bugs | Las Chinches
  • Climate Change
  • Drinking Water
  • Facility Compliance
  • Greenhouse Gas
  • Radon
  • Recycling
  • Watersense
  • More topics

Next week I will outline the commitments the US made as part of the COP21 meeting in Paris (November 17, 2015January 12, 2016). We can use those as a baseline to see how the current administration follows up on our country’s promises.

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Back to Psychology: Self-Serving Bias

Alan Greenspan has been reflecting on the meaning behind Trump’s win and the Brexit vote:

The rise of “economic populism” around the world has come from years of low growth that have “seriously impaired” the global economy, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said Thursday.

Once known as the “Maestro” of the American economy, the 90-year-old Greenspan said in a speech that the “surprise electoral wind of Donald Trump” in the U.S. and the Brexit vote in Britain are the two most glaring examples of a movement that is taking the world by storm.

“Populism is not a structured economic philosophy such as capitalism, socialism or communism,” he told an audience at the Economic Club of New York. “But it’s a cry of pain by the populace for some leaders to arise to take charge and lessen their pain.”

Psychology has other ideas about the “cry of pain”:

A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner.[1] It is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.[2] When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, or take more responsibility for their group’s work than they give to other members, they are protecting the ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self’s need for esteem.[3] For example, a student who attributes earning a good grade on an exam to their own intelligence and preparation but attributes earning a poor grade to the teacher’s poor teaching ability or unfair test questions is exhibiting the self-serving bias. Studies have shown that similar attributions are made in various situations, such as the workplace,[4] interpersonal relationships,[5] sports,[6] and consumer decisions.[7]

Here’s another take on the matter, courtesy of

A self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that causes a person to view their own actions favorably or interpret events in a way that is beneficial to themselves. It typically occurs when a person attributes his or her successes to his or her own abilities but any failures to external causes.

The site gives an excellent example:

Researchers have long puzzled over apparent differences in mathematical ability between girls and boys. Despite outperforming boys for most of their school years, girls take fewer math classes and are less likely to believe they are good at math. An inversion of the self-serving bias may be to blame. Some studies have found that girls tend to attribute mathematical successes to hard work and mathematical failures to incompetence. Boys, conversely, engage in a self-serving bias and attribute successes to intelligence and failures to external factors. Boys also tend to overestimate their mathematical competence. This real-life example of a self-serving bias demonstrates how the bias can actually improve performance by encouraging boys to remain in challenging math classes.

Trump has said a lot about the “pain” that he alone can heal:

While self-serving bias can be beneficial in addressing self-esteem issues, it can be disastrous in collective settings – especially within the democratic selection of governments. The only remedy that I saw in my admittedly short search came from an old article in Psychology Today by Heidi Halvorson:

From a motivational perspective, the best way to handle a failure is to look honestly at how your own actions contributed to the outcome, emphasizing what you can change so that your performance improves from now on. And even though, in his mid-80s, Alan Greenspan is unlikely to serve a second round as Fed Chairman, he would probably like to get an accurate handle on what went wrong — something he will never do unless he admits that he was actually driving.

Looking at yourself is good advice in general but in a political context the “self” is usually not much of a player. Better advice is to try to look at the facts, to do your own research. Trump’s repeated slogans, “make America great again,” “drain the swamp,” “the American dream is dead,” etc. shaped voters’ outlooks on current circumstances. A closer look at the facts, which are now available to us all, shows a very different picture from that which he painted (January 3, 2017). Among the large developed countries we are probably in the best shape; climate change, which is almost certainly human-inflicted, is a solid fact independent of today’s weather in New York City. This referral to the facts can start in schools with teachers discussing election issues in class and continue in libraries where the general public can arrange free fact-checking events while avoiding political bias. Such a change in education will take time. I don’t see an effective shortcut. We will have to do the best we can until any educational efforts bear fruits. In the meantime we should do the best we can to minimize the damage that a bad choice of government can inflict on our long-term opportunities.

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Back to Psychology: A Vaccine against “Fake News” on Climate Change

I ended my book on climate change (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now – Momentum Press, 2011) with the chapter: “The Future, the Past and the Just World Hypothesis.”

My wife, an experimental psychologist and now the dean of research at my college, pointed out that social psychology has a possible explanation for inaction in the face of dire threats, mediated by a strong need to believe that we live in a “just world,” a belief deeply held by many individuals that the world is a rational, predictable, and just place. The “just world” hypothesis also posits that people believe that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering7. The “just world” concept has some similarity to rational choice theory, which underlies current analysis of microeconomics and other social behavior. Rationality in this context is the result of balancing costs and benefits to maximize personal advantage. It underlies much of economic modeling, including that of stock markets, where it goes by the name “efficient market hypothesis,” which states that the existing share price incorporates and reflects all relevant information. The need for such frameworks emerges from attempts to make the social sciences behave like physical sciences with good predictive powers. Physics is not much different. A branch of physics called statistical mechanics, which is responsible for most of the principles discussed in Chapter 5 (conservation of energy, entropy, etc.), incorporates the basic premise that if nature has many options for action and we do not have any reason to prefer one option over another, then we assume that the probability of taking any action is equal to the probability of taking any other. For large systems, this assumption works beautifully and enables us to predict macroscopic phenomena to a high degree of accuracy. In economics, a growing area of research is dedicated to the study of exceptions to the rational choice theory, which has shown that humans are not very rational creatures. This area, behavioral economics, includes major contributions by psychologists.

Well the book was published in 2011. Things are different now. It seems that half the global population doesn’t think that the world is just and that line of thinking has had serious political consequences when it comes to the structure of governments and the shape that the world will take in the future. While rethinking the “just world” hypothesis, I ran into an article on the University of Cambridge website that mentions a recently published study which might provide a new psychological tool for helping the public differentiate between real news and fake news as it relates to the human role in climate change. The tool takes its inspiration from public health vaccinations. The essence of the concept is as follows:

New research finds that misinformation on climate change can psychologically cancel out the influence of accurate statements. However, if legitimate facts are delivered with an “inoculation” – a warning dose of misinformation – some of the positive influence is preserved.

In medicine, vaccinating against a virus involves exposing a body to a weakened version of the threat, enough to build a tolerance.

Social psychologists believe that a similar logic can be applied to help “inoculate” the public against misinformation, including the damaging influence of ‘fake news’ websites propagating myths about climate change.

For my part in aiding the credibility of psychological research in addressing collective societal issues, I have decided to highlight this paper by emphasizing the methodology of the research. Detailed description of methodology is the essence of good science because it enables readers to judge the quality of the research while also facilitating any attempts to replicate the research to compare results.

The original study, “Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change,” was published by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rozenthal, and Edward Maibach in Two of the authors are affiliated with Yale University in the US, one with George Mason University in the US, and the last with Cambridge University in the UK. The abstract of the study is given below:

Effectively addressing climate change requires significant changes in individual and collective human behavior and decision-making. Yet, in light of the increasing politicization of (climate) science, and the attempts of vested-interest groups to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change through organized “disinformation campaigns,” identifying ways to effectively engage with the public about the issue across the political spectrum has proven difficult. A growing body of research suggests that one promising way to counteract the politicization of science is to convey the high level of normative agreement (“consensus”) among experts about the reality of human-caused climate change. Yet, much prior research examining public opinion dynamics in the context of climate change has done so under conditions with limited external validity. Moreover, no research to date has examined how to protect the public from the spread of influential misinformation about climate change. The current research bridges this divide by exploring how people evaluate and process consensus cues in a polarized information environment. Furthermore, evidence is provided that it is possible to pre-emptively protect (“inoculate”) public attitudes about climate change against real-world misinformation.

With the following conclusion:

In a large experiment (N = 2167), we show that communicating the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change significantly increases public perception of the expert consensus by about 20 percentage points (Bar I, CT-Only). Importantly, the introduction of (mis)information contesting the existence of a scientific consensus neutralizes the positive effect of highlighting normative expert agreement (Bar III, CT|CM). Further, in the absence of any cues about the actual level of consensus, the presentation of misinformation significantly undermines the public’s perception of the level of scientific agreement (−9 points; Bar II, CM). Finally, pre-emptively warning people about politically motivated attempts to spread misinformation helps promote and protect (“inoculate”) public attitudes about the scientific consensus (Bars IV and V, In1 | CM and In2 | CM).

More about the analogy with medical vaccines:

The rate of cultural transmission, or infection, may be slowed through a process known as attitudinal inoculation. In medicine, resistance to a virus can be conferred by exposing someone to a weakened version of the virus (a vaccine)—strong enough to trigger a response (i.e., the production of antibodies), but not so strong as to overwhelm the body’s immune system. The social–psychological theory of attitudinal inoculation [56] follows a similar logic: A threat is introduced by forewarning people that they may be exposed to information that challenges their existing beliefs or behaviors. Then, one or more (weakened) examples of that information are presented and directly refuted in a process called “refutational pre-emption” or “prebunking.”[14] In short, attitudinal resistance is conferred by pre-emptively highlighting false claims and refuting potential counterarguments.


Two studies were conducted to answer these research questions. In the first study, we used a nationally representative probability sample of the US population (N = 1000) to test several misinformation statements about the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. The purpose of Study 1 was to identify the most influential and representative “countermessages” used by climate change opponents. In Study 2, we conducted a randomized online survey experiment using a large and diverse sample (N = 2167) from Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk) to test whether it is possible to “inoculate” people against such misinformation (see Part B in the Supporting Information for more information about Mturk). We employed a mixed design that compared a participant’s pre–post (within-subject) estimate of the scientific consensus across (between) six different experimental conditions. An overview of the different experimental conditions is provided in Table 1

The supplementary materials to the paper include specific examples of misinformation, real information, and inoculation information used in the study.

Summary of the results:

All of the hypotheses were fully supported by the data. Descriptive within-subject differences in perceived scientific agreement are reported in Table 3 and Figure 1. As expected, no meaningful pre–post change in perceived consensus was observed in the control group (Mdiff = 0.35). The consensus-treatment (CT) alone elicited a large increase in perceived scientific agreement (Mdiff = 19.72). In contrast, the (misinformation) countermessage (CM) had a substantial negative influence (Mdiff = −8.99) when presented on its own. When participants viewed the messages sequentially (CT | CM), the informational value of the consensus-treatment was negated completely (Mdiff = 0.51). As hypothesized, the general (In1 | CM) and detailed (In2 | CM) inoculation interventions were each successful in preserving much of the positive effect of the consensus message in the presence of counterinformation (Mdiff = 6.47 and 12.71—or one-third and two-thirds of the initial consensus-treatment effect, respectively).

The selected paragraphs that I have included might seem confusing so I strongly encourage you to read the original publication and the provided supplemental information. If you choose not to read the whole paper you will have to take my word that the authors analyzed the significance of what appeared to be a small tendency to more readily accept the real information after the inoculation than without it. As in the medical case, an “informational vaccine” could indeed help stop the spread of misinformation and fake news.

However, it is unclear how best to deliver such a “vaccination” for optimum electoral impact to affect policy.

Next week I will go into some detail about how we can address the break in the “just world” hypothesis in such a way as to influence the electoral process.

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Chinese Hoax?

Top Issues – Trump

Top Issues – Obama

It’s already been more than three weeks since the inauguration and the only action the new administration has taken with regards to climate change has been erasing it from the white house page as a concern for focus. As you can see from the lists above, climate change was not the only priority to shift; all the previous issues were replaced by the new president’s election slogans.

Meanwhile, climate change was also initially removed from the EPA’s site – even before a new EPA administrator was approved, but Trump has reportedly suspended that particular change, letting the topic stand – for now.

There are speculations about what our new president can do or undo regarding climate change policy but at the moment most of these remain conjecture. Right now, we only have two “real” things to track: the appointment of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and President Trump’s standing commitment to start a major effort to update the country’s much needed infrastructure.

Exxon’s role in the country’s efforts to be a leader in climate change mediation is a subject of much controversy and confusion. A few years ago my research on climate change was supported by Exxon funding. I had contacts and friends in Exxon research laboratories and at the time I didn’t hear any voices that denied the role that humans played in changing the atmospheric chemistry that results in global climate change. On the other hand, there is also no denying Exxon’s pivotal support for organizations such as the Heartland Institution, which has done everything in its power to stop any attempts to mitigate human contributions to climate change. The Hill examines Rex Tillerson’s part in these developments:

Rex Tillerson oversaw a major shift on climate change as chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. as the nation’s largest oil company accepted the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to a warming planet.

Tillerson, whom President-elect Donald Trump this week tapped to be his secretary of State, took charge as Exxon Mobil’s top executive in 2006

Just a year later, Exxon shifted from its public position of doubting climate change to declaring that there is “no question” that human activity was the source of carbon dioxide emissions contributing to the phenomenon. “Before and after Rex Tillerson, Exxon had a very different profile, as a company, in the issues related to climate change, and that’s worth noting,” said Sam Adams, the United States director for the World Resources Institute, a nonpartisan group that advocates for international climate action.

Under Tillerson’s predecessor, CEO Lee Raymond, Exxon fought the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and other climate policies, frequently framing climate science as shaky at best.

After Tillerson took over, the company backed a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, implemented an internal accounting measure to put a fee on carbon emissions and stopped funding many groups that outright reject the scientific consensus behind climate change, all major shifts away from its previous positions.

Exxon endorsed last year’s agreement in Paris on global warming

Complete separation of the histories of Exxon and Tillerson’s roles in their attitude to climate change is probably impossible. However, there is no denying that Rex Tillerson understands climate change data and doesn’t claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax that was invented to challenge the United States. This, it seems, makes him unique in the new Trump administration. One can only hope that he will have some impact.

The second thing that that has some likelihood of being able to influence President Trump to treat climate change for what it actually is might rest on his promise to start on major infrastructure rebuilding. He wants to spend a trillion dollars on the project:

In his inaugural address, President Trump doubled-down on his campaign promise to invest in America’s aging infrastructure, vowing to “build new roads, highways, bridges, airports, tunnels and railways” across the country. A comprehensive infrastructure package is a rare opportunity for bipartisan collaboration.

Donald Trump came to the presidency already known as a successful builder. Many corners of the US building industry are now taking the data of the likely impacts of intensification of climate change and updating building codes accordingly. They are putting serious resources into attempting to make the buildings climate-change-resilient. To that end, climate change resiliency has become a major selling point. Here is an example from the city that Trump knows best:

There is a breathtaking view of the mid-Manhattan skyline, pierced by the Empire State Building, from the 48th floor of the taller of two new copper-clad apartment towers along the East River, just south of the United Nations.

No plutocrat will enjoy it, however. This impressive penthouse aerie is hogged by five emergency generators. The window is already blocked by a bank of electrical switchgear. For the developers, giving up premium space to machinery is insurance against an ominous future: They want tenants in the towers’ 760 apartments to be able to live in their apartments for at least a week, no matter how high floodwaters may reach nor how long the power is out.

“We said: ‘Water is going to come in here. What are we going to do about it?’” explained Simon Koster, a principal in the JDS Development Group, which is building the towers, known as the American Copper Buildings.

JDS is in good company.

The building industry wouldn’t have put such resources behind a “Chinese hoax.”

Fortunately, thoughtful persons with great credibility among many conservatives, offer a reasonable way ahead. Martin Feldstein, Ted Halstead, and Gregory Mankiw penned an Op-Ed in The New York Times:

Our plan is built on four pillars.

First, the federal government would impose a gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions. It might begin at $40 per ton and increase steadily. This tax would send a powerful signal to businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprints.

Second, the proceeds would be returned to the American people on an equal basis via quarterly dividend checks. With a carbon tax of $40 per ton, a family of four would receive about $2,000 in the first year. As the tax rate rose over time to further reduce emissions, so would the dividend payments.

Third, American companies exporting to countries without comparable carbon pricing would receive rebates on the carbon taxes they’ve paid on those products, while imports from such countries would face fees on the carbon content of their products. This would protect American competitiveness and punish free-riding by other nations, encouraging them to adopt their own carbon pricing.

Finally, regulations made unnecessary by the carbon tax would be eliminated, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

Hope that somebody is listening.

Stay tuned.

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Stabilization of Additional Indicators

We have spent the last two weeks examining how to stabilize our main socioeconomic indicators in order to achieve a long-term sustainable existence. Since climate change is one of the main early signs of the emerging human-dominated geological era (Anthropocene), I have focused especially on human-caused (anthropogenic) aspects that trigger changes in atmospheric chemistry and drive climate change. The IPAT identity summarizes some indicators, including population, affluence, energy intensity, and energy sources.

However, these are not the only indicators necessary to accomplish long-term sustainability. The World Bank included 41 such indicators in its section on climate change (April 7, 2015).

             Table 1 – A list of the 41 indicators in the Word Bank section on Climate Change

Access to electricity (% of population) Investment in energy with private participation (current US$)
Agricultural irrigated land (% of total agricultural land) Investment in telecoms with private participation (current US$)
Agricultural land (% of land area) Investment in transport with private participation (current US$)
Agriculture, value added (% of GDP) Investment in water and sanitation with private participation (current US$)
Annual freshwater withdrawals, total (billion cubic meters) Land area where elevation is below 5 meters (% of total land area)
Cereal yield (kg per hectare) Malnutrition prevalence, weight for age (% of children under 5)
CO2 emissions (kt) Methane emissions (kt of CO2 equivalent)
CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita) Mortality rate, under-5 (per 1,000 live births)
CPIA public sector management and institutions cluster average (1=low to 6=high) Nitrous oxide emissions (thousand metric tons of CO2 equivalent)
Ease of doing business index (1=most business-friendly regulations) Other greenhouse gas emissions, HFC, PFC and SF6 (thousand metric tons of CO2 equivalent)
Electric power consumption (kWh per capita) Population growth (annual %)
Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita) Population in urban agglomerations of more than 1 million (% of total population)
Energy use (kt of oil equivalent) Population living in areas where elevation is below 5 meters (% of total population)
Foreign direct investment, net inflows (BoP, current US$) Population, total
Forest area (% of land area) Poverty headcount ratio at $1.25 a day (PPP) (% of population)
Forest area (sq. km) Primary completion rate, total (% of relevant age group)
GDP (current US$) Ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education (%)
GNI per capita, Atlas method (current US$) Roads, paved (% of total roads)
Improved sanitation facilities (% of population with access) Urban population
Improved water source, rural (% of rural population with access) Urban population (% of total)
Improved water source, urban (% of urban population with access)

The World Bank indicators are all measurable quantities in need of long-term stabilization. In this case, they specifically target climate change. As you can surmise, only some of them relate to the IPAT identity – mainly as consequences of its individual components. The rest, while still linked to consequences of the impacts of climate change, fall outside that specific definition.

The United Nations also came out with its own recent list (October 13, 2015) of sustainable development goals to be accomplished by 2030.

Figure 1 – UN Sustainable Development goals

Most of the UN goals are unsurprisingly abstract, targeted more toward global justice than any measurable indicators for stabilizing long term living conditions on earth. It is encouraging that the UN specifically refers to preservation of the physical environment in goals number 14 (life below water) and 15 (life on land). However, these fields are still presented in a non-quantifiable form.

To ensure long term sustainability, important indicators are missing from both lists. For example, if we look at last week’s blog about stabilizing affluence, data there show that among the ten most populous countries there are very large differences in wealth per person. An American’s wealth as measured in GDP/Capita is more than 50 times that of the average Bangladeshi. Among the ten most populous countries, whose residents account for 60% of the world’s population, there are only two developed countries – the US and Japan – with a GDP/Capita greater than $12,000. I also included data that show that the combined wealth of the planet’s eight richest people is more than the total wealth of almost half the world’s population. Under these conditions it is hard to ask a Bangladeshi or Indian person not to strive for further economic growth so that he/she can live like an average American or Japanese citizen. To put the issue into sharper contrast, the Bangladeshi or Indian citizens are not the only ones who require their governments to ensure ever faster economic growth; that is also true of citizens of the rich countries. Election results are firmly linked to perceptions of economic performance, as based solely on growth or decline, not on the sustainability of a healthy economy. But the economies of the rich countries cannot grow forever. In fact, the important issue for stabilizing global wealth has less to do with absolute level of wealth and much more to do with wealth distribution.

The IPAT identity that I continuously bring up is comprised of the indicators that are considered to be most responsible for the anthropogenic contributions to climate change. As to the temperature rise that we associate with climate change, we see the brunt of its effects via sea-level rise and fresh water distribution through the water cycle (September 3, 2013 blog). The water cycle and energy cycle are linked, so any impact to one also affects the other. With 70% of the Earth’s surface covered by oceans, as long as the global temperature does not approach water’s boiling point and as long as the atmosphere does not escape Earth’s gravity (as happened on Mars), we will have plenty of water on Earth – albeit most of it undrinkable and unsuited for agricultural use. We can get fresh water from ocean water by desalination (October 8December 3, 2013) but we will have to use sustainable energy and it will probably be expensive. In spite of the fact that right now about a quarter of the world’s population is living under water stress, it is unlikely to become the prime cause of human extinction.

There are a few other indicators that are in need of global stabilization. Some of these are quantifiable, and thus amenable to the sort of stabilizing saturation we discussed last week; some are not. We need good and effective governance to successfully implement any top-down policies. Furthermore, at the base, we need good education for both genders – not only to have an informed electorate but also to keep population growth in check.

  • Economic inequality
  • Water (sea level and fresh water)
  • Governance
  • Temperature
  • Education
  • Security
  • Migration

It will be a great exercise to try to correlate the World Bank climate change indicators and the UN goals with both the IPAT indicators and the seven others listed above. We need to convince ourselves that long term control of our existence rests on our ability to stabilize these indicators.

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Limits to Global Affluence?

“Dear God, you made many, many poor people.
I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor.
But it’s no great honor either!
So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?”

If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn’t have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man.

I’d build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen,
Right in the middle of the town.
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below.
There would be one long staircase just going up,
And one even longer coming down,
And one more leading nowhere, just for show.

As I promised last week, we are looking for a saturation level for the affluence indicator in the IPAT formula: how rich do we want everybody to be? I am opening with two verses from musical Fiddler on a Roof’s song, “If I Were a Rich Man.”  The background of this musical is deeply anchored in 19th Century Jewish history in Eastern Europe.

In the song, Tevye, a hardworking Jewish peasant with five daughters, explores how his life would change if he were wealthy (In both the original Jewish folklore and the Hebrew version of the musical, the rich man is specifically named Rothschild. Tevye imagines that he could stop working so hard and would have a big house in the middle of town. He continues by stating that he’d show off his wealth. His wife would be the envy of all and the entire town would be forced to pay him their respect. He would have the time to sit in the synagogue and pray, reserving the best seat, and discussing with the learned men as an equal. In short, aside from granting him a comfortable place to live and the leisure of free time, the rest of his wealth would be for show. What, then, would happen if everyone else in his village, Anatevka, were just as rich as he was? What about the whole world? On a related note, how much money would it actually take to fulfill Tevye’s dream?

Let us take a quick look at the global situation:

Tables 1 and 2 show the essence of the 2014 global income distribution. Table 1 shows the GDP/Capita of the 10 most populous countries (which constitute about 60% of the global population). Table 2 shows the 10 richest countries (in terms of GDP/Capita). The richest countries are all relatively small. Let’s take Qatar as an example – out of the listed 2.3 million residents, only 278,000 are Qataris (12%); Indian and Nepalese people outnumber them heftily. Importantly, its GDP/Capita is usually calculated only from Qatari nationals. The data for tables 1 and 2 were taken from a variety of sources, including the Economist’s World Figures (which in itself culls data from the IMF, World Bank, CIA, and Eurostat, and others).

Table 1 – The 2014 GDP/Capita of the 10 most populous countries

Country Population (millions) GDP/Capita (US$)
China 1390 6,108
India 1270 1,647
United States 323 54,306
Indonesia 253 3,703
Brazil 202 11,705
Pakistan 185 1,114
Nigeria 178 2,548
Bangladesh 158 924
Russia 142 11,491
Japan 127 35,825

Table 2 – The 2014 GDP/Capita of the 10 richest countries

Country Population (millions) GDP/Capita (US$)
Monaco 0.03 187,650
Lichtenstein 0.037 157,040
Luxembourg 0.56 116,745
Norway 5.2 97,227
Qatar 2.27 96,732
Macau 0.57 96,038
Bermuda 0.07 89,795
Switzerland 8.14 85,397
Denmark 5.7 61,294
Australia 23.5 61,042

Figure 1 shows a recently compilation of photographs of the eight richest men in the world, based on data from Forbes, which many regard as the most accurate listing. Forbes also claims that their combined net worth exceeds that of the poorest half the world population.

's 8 richest menFigure 1 – The world’s 8 richest persons

Clockwise from top left: Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega Gaona, Warren E. Buffett, Carlos Slim Helú, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Lawrence J. Ellison, Michael R. Bloomberg.

The Economist had an article on the same story; it agrees with the estimate that the eight men’s combined net worth is $426 billion but is somewhat skeptical about the relative worth of the poorest half of the world. This departure is mainly based on the fact that its estimate does not include negative net worth, which is mainly localized within the rich world. Using the data in Table 1 (which includes the richest large country: the US), the eight gentlemen hold “only” 1% of the cumulative wealth (measured by the product of the population by the GDP/capita), while the US alone holds wealth almost equivalent to the sum total of that of the other 9 countries.

Disregarding such “minor” disagreements, and neglecting for a moment the few billion dollar differences in these gentlemen’s net worth, each one of them is valued at roughly $53 billion.

Do we assume, then, that $53 billion per person is the sought-after saturation level of global affluence? If the answer is yes, what would you actually do with an equity that large? Tevye’s dream aside, you cannot use it for power or show if everybody else has a similar fortune. To use such wealth for necessities, no matter how elaborate, seems a bit excessive.

Well, let’s pretend that we are Tevye with some modifications – we are not seeking out wealth for ourselves but rather for everybody in the world: a global affluence saturation level. How much would you be asking for and what kind of world would we be living in? The long-term survival of our planet depends on your answers, so please be detailed and quantitative.

I will return to this issue after seeing some responses.

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Searching for Limits – Stability for a Distant Future

I am finishing this blog on Friday, January 20th – Inauguration Day for our new president. I didn’t recognize the country that he described in his acceptance speech. Nevertheless, I wish him – and all of us – the best. One thing is clear: the speech was a continuation of a bleak but effective campaign that looks to the past for guidance – “make America great again.” I am sure that we will have plenty of opportunities to comment on the emerging presidency. Meanwhile, I would like to continue what I started last week and try to look further into our more distant future:

The January 28, 2013 blog also indicates what needs to be done to keep the planet livable for such a time scale:

How to do it? – To achieve the sustainable objectives on this time scale, we will have to establish equilibrium with the physical environment and at the same time maximize individual opportunities for everybody on this planet.

In this and the next two blogs I will try to get into some quantitative details regarding the balance we seek between business as usual (BAU) scenarios – in which we strive for continual growth – and the physical limits that our planet imposes. I have discussed such a balance in terms of population growth (February 4, 2014), which is one of the key indicators of the Anthropocene. Now I am extending the dialogue to the many other indicators that characterize the coming era.

Figure 1 – Examples of exponential growth and logistic growth (for full discussion see the February 4, 2014 blog)

The term dN/dT in Figure 1 describes the growth of the quantity (in this case, population) via the language used in calculus; we don’t need to enter into that field here but is very useful when tackling growth issues. Growth is defined as the change in quantity as a function of time.

For exponential growth, the rate of population growth stays the same regardless of how big it gets, meaning that it shoots up incredibly quickly. The growth rate (proportionality constant) shown above is 1.0. This pattern includes population with a constant growth rate, money in a bank account with a constant interest rate, initial stages of most epidemics, tumor growth, etc. As long as the growth rate remains constant, there is no limit; population would theoretically grow forever. In BAU scenarios, given that we are unsure of certain development factors, we assume that the quantity will continue to grow at its present rate.

If, on the other hand, we assume that the growth rate will get smaller and smaller as the population increases, that means it will follow a logistic growth pattern that reaches saturation at some level. Figure 1 also includes an example of such growth, wherein the saturation takes place when the population is 1,500 and the growth rate is expressed as 1.0*(1500-N)/1,500. For N = 1,500, the quantity in parentheses becomes zero and N ceases to grow – it saturates and becomes independent of time. The saturation parameter (1,500 in the example above) is often called carrying capacity to emphasize that – at least in case of populations – saturation takes place when there is not enough food to sustain a larger population. Logistic growth does a great job at describing the population changes of bacteria in closed environments with a finite known food supply. There have, of course, been many attempts to describe global human populations in terms of logistic growth but since human societies need much more than food to thrive and grow, attempts to quantify such global carrying capacity have never made it very far.

However, it is clear that BAU scenarios are unsustainable for the time periods that I suggested in last week’s blog: 1,000-10,000 years. One of the advantages of logistic models is the strong potential role they give policy makers to define the saturation level that will replace growth with sustainable equilibrium. Once that has been done, we can start to try to design policies that will gradually shape the growth model accordingly.

Let us set an example here focusing on climate change using the IPAT identity (November 26, 2012):

There is a useful identity that correlates the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, in Governor’s Romney statement) with the other indicators. The equation is known as the IPAT equation (or I=PAT), which stands for Impact Population Affluence Technology. The equation was proposed independently by two research teams; one consists of Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren (now President Obama’s Science Adviser), while the other is led by Barry Commoner (P.R. Ehrlich and J.P. Holdren; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:16 (1972). B. Commoner; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:42 (1972).)

The identity takes the following form:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Almost all of the future scenarios for climate change make separate estimates of the indicators in this equation. The difference factor of 15 in GDP/Person (measure of affluence), between the average Chinese and average American makes it clear that the Chinese and the rest of the developing world will do everything they can to try to “even the score” with the developed world. The global challenge is how to do this while at the same time minimizing the environmental impact.

The Population and Affluence terms are self-explanatory. The Impact term in this case refers to emissions of carbon dioxide. The Technology term consists of the three terms combined below:

Technology = (Energy/GDP)x(Fossil/Energy)x(CO2/Fossil)

The first term in this equation refers to Energy Intensity – how much energy we need to generate a unit of GDP (Gross Domestic Product, used here as an Affluence metric). The second term represents the fraction of the total energy that is being generated from fossil fuels. The last term specifies the kind of fossil fuel that is being used (coal, natural gas or oil).

The actual decomposition of global CO2 emissions is shown in Figure 2, which clearly demonstrates that for at least the last decade, Affluence has been the dominant contributor to emissions.

Let us now try to identify saturating indicators of this identity that in principle will allow us to extract growth curves that will stabilize without destroying the environment in the long time periods that we are striving for.

The international community has agreed – as expressed at the December 2015 Paris COP21 meeting (see the serious of blogs starting on December 22, 2015) – that global carbon dioxide generation from energy use should be zero by the end of this century, at latest.

This requirement necessitates that over this time period, the fraction of global energy supplied by fossil fuels be reduced to zero or be coupled with technology to capture the emitted carbon dioxide. Additionally, the commitment mandates that all the needed energy will be generated from alternative, sustainable fuels or nuclear power. The COP21 meeting put a clear priority on reducing their reliance on fossil fuels in their energy mix through this time period.

Figure 2 – Decomposition of the change in total global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by decade

In principle, if the requirement for zero carbon dioxide emissions is met, both the Population and Affluence terms become irrelevant. However, we have shown in earlier blogs (December 24, 2013) that if BAU scenarios for population growth continue, within a few hundred years, the population density of the planet will be similar to that of the most densely populated city today (Mumbai, India). This would include sparsely populated land areas such as global deserts, Antarctica, etc. Additionally, this does not take into account that through the changing climate on this time scale, the available land area will decline considerably due to rising sea levels and expanding desert areas.

So, for planetary survival, population growth must reach a saturation point (soon). Fortunately, increasing affluence is a major driving force for reduction of fertility rate and population growth (see December 24, 2013 blog); the United Nations, in its long-term forecasts, predicts a saturation level that corresponds to fertility replacement rate of 2.1, to stabilize world population above 10 billion toward the end of the century.

The Energy Intensity term (Energy/GDP) in principle can be reduced to zero but basic physics – the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (June 21, 2016 where I discuss entropy) is set on minimum required energy. I already mentioned one example of such a limit when I discussed Reverse Osmosis (October 8 and 29, 2013) as the most promising technique for water desalination. In future blogs, with the help of my students, I will try to quantify this limit on the energy intensity and relate it to the current state of the technology.

The only indicator left in the IPAT identity that – at least in principle – needs to reach a saturation level is the Affluence term. This comes at a time when almost every head of state and government is demanding more and faster growth. As such, we need personal contributions to figure out how to regulate affluence levels. Next week’s blog will include some background information about the current state of global distribution of wealth.

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Playing for a Better Future

It’s time to stop crying over spilled milk! No more speculating; we need to prepare for the future. What kind of future will that be?

My paid job is to prepare students to face their futures. I have also taken on a bigger challenge by using this blog not only as an asset for my university teaching but also to try to reach outside of my classroom (Educating for the Anthropocene series: May 24June 14, 2016). I just got the new issue of the Economist (January 14, 2017), whose cover story, “Lifelong learning: How to survive in the age of automation,” tackles a much narrower aspect of the same issue. I will address the Economist’s perspective in future blogs.

My most immediate future is clear – there are only three days before the inauguration of our newly elected president. As of that day, speculations regarding what the new government might do should be immediately replaced with keen observation and analysis of the consequences of actual policies.

On Monday, January 30th, the new spring 2017 semester at my university starts. Once again, I am teaching my advanced course on Physics and Society. I have mentioned this course a few times (see for example August 19, 2014) but have never described it in any detail. It is open to graduate students and advanced undergraduates with a background in the sciences. The course aims to explore career opportunities beyond the usual boundaries of textbooks that include human The broader rationale of such a course should be familiar to readers of this blog.

Among other definitions, Physics is:

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 a population of over 7 billion people (October 2012) and growing, humans are inarguably part of the physical environment. In keeping with that fact, Physics and Society now has a forum within the American Physical Society with its own publication. Indeed, the most prestigious Physics journal – Physical Review Letters – includes a related “catch all” section called, “Soft Matter, Biological and Interdisciplinary Physics.”

As I have repeated, the course is tightly linked to a future controlled by human activities – an era that may (eventually) be officially termed the Anthropocene. I described this future at a recent talk I gave on climate change using three slides (December 27, 2016):

Figure 1 – Discussion points from a paper

I will emphasize here (and to my students) the first two discussion points:

One of the biggest questions that arises any time we discuss the future is: how far into the future are we talking?

I defined (January 28, 2013) sustainability as:

 the condition that we have to develop here to flourish until we can develop the technology for extraterrestrial travel that will allow us to move to another planet once we ruin our own.

We are now working hard to find such an alternative planet and we are making some progress. A rough guide used by some is that it will take about 1000 years to be able to start moving people to such a planet, but it doesn’t really matter if that timeline is wrong. As I said in the January 28, 2013 blog, we will have plenty of opportunities to adjust our timing; meanwhile, we should work hard to keep this planet livable for as long as possible:

It reminds me of the days that I had a contract with an industry to help dispose of radioactive waste that was accumulating at the Hanford Nuclear facility in Washington State. The effort was guided by the requirement of the surrounding community to have a guarantee that whatever disposal method is being used, it would remain stable for at least 100,000 years. Everybody with even a minimal technical background regarded a guarantee over such a time scale to be completely unrealistic. But, through the interpretation of “forever” through President Obama’s statement, the “forever” becomes doable. We just have to try hard, not be perfect. Keep our eyes at the target and correct as we go along and hope that future generations will continue with the effort.

A few days ago I revisited the nuclear waste issue when I watched a PBS program. Most of the material was familiar however I almost fainted when I heard about an aspect about which I was totally ignorant – WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant). There is a site in Carlsbad, New Mexico that already has a license to store radioactive waste provided that one “minor” condition is fulfilled: Markers should be placed there that will be functional 10,000 years from now to warn whatever civilization may come next not to trespass on the site due to the risk of exposure to the deadly radiation. A large, multidisciplinary group was assembled there to try to figure out what kind of civilization will be around then so as to tailor make said warnings. We are already spending big money on a distant future 10,000 years from now to warn our descendants or extraterrestrials of damage that we are inflicting now. It’s not out of line to broaden the scope for damage that most of us consider existential within the lifespan of our grandchildren.

The second slide (Figure 2) summarizes the state of approval for marking the Anthropocene as a new (and current) geological period. One important aspect, as shown on this slide, is the proposed marker for the beginning of this period. The Economist’s report from September 2016, demonstrates that the leading candidate for said marker is the high point of nuclear weapons testing in 1964.

The connection here with the timing issue is inescapable. Most of the nuclear waste that we are even now trying to dispose of came from the production and testing of nuclear weapons. The main fissionable element in the nuclear testing was Plutonium. The Plutonium used in atomic weapons is Pu (239). Its atomic number is 94 – meaning that its nucleus has 94 protons and (239 – 94) = 145 neutrons. Its half-life (time for half of the quantity to disintegrate) is 24,000 years. Factoring in the environment where the material is presently located, it will only be considered safe after 10 lifetimes (240,000) years, hence the requirement for warnings after 10,000 years.

Figure 2 – The status of the Anthropocene working group

Figure 3 – Some of the early indicators of the Anthropocene

Figure 3 summarizes some of the early indicators of the Anthropocene. Due to my own oversight, it omits nuclear waste as one of the early indicators but it does include climate change.

The January 28, 2013 blog also indicates what needs to be done to keep the planet livable for such a time scale:

How to do it? – To achieve the sustainable objectives on this time scale, we will have to establish equilibrium with the physical environment and at the same time maximize individual opportunities for everybody on this planet.

The essence of my efforts here and in class is to try to quantify the requirements that will assure livability over such a future. The following two blogs will provide the outline of how I propose to do so and how feedback from you and my students will play a role in our future.

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Working for the Future

A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be. – Wayne Gretzky

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. – Albert Einstein

I am here to advocate for Wayne Gretzky’s maxim and “dump” Albert Einstein’s prediction. This is a painful thing to do for a physics professor who has never played ice hockey in his life. Gretzky’s hockey can serve as metaphor for everything we do, including our attempts to save the planet from a sixth mass extinction. We all spend the days following the New Year hoping, praying and making resolutions to ensure that our future, as well as that of our friends and family, our country, and the world, will be better than what we have just lived through. Given that there are just a few days before our new president’s inauguration, it is time to confront his motto of “make America Great Again.” Not only does he not need to fulfill this campaign promise, we must all work to prevent America and the world from becoming worse than they currently are.

The New Year is also a great time to meet family and friends to talk through big issues and what we can do to shape a better future. As long as these chats remain abstract, there are no problems. We all want a safe world – on a local, national and global level; we want better education for our children; we want to pay fewer taxes. When the issue of climate change comes up, I often hear, “But that is just a prediction! Those are all based on computer projections, depending on certain models that we simulate. What happens if the models are wrong and we have made sacrifices for nothing?”

The future will always be uncertain. Playing where we think the puck is going to be is a risky proposal; there is always the chance that we will guess wrong and/or that an opposing player will reach the puck ahead of us and change its trajectory. Taking that risk is what differentiates good players from great players; good teams from great. Einstein’s quote is a worst-case scenario predicting a sixth mass extinction. He provides no hint of what we can do to change the trajectory to a safer target.

Trying to predict the future is a popular activity. Below are six books whose attempts at such cover a wide spectrum. I have read each of them and they now sit safely on my shelf:

To my knowledge, the father of scientific attempts to  predict the future in the context of human existence was Robert Malthus (1766-1834). An English economist, he looked at two key components of our future: population growth and food supply (picture in the cover of “population growth”). I will come back to these next week. According to Malthus, population increase follows an exponential growth, while any increase in food supply can – at best – follow a linear pattern. With these two different growth models, human population increase will quickly surpass the available food supply and lead to the collapse of civilization. This issue continues to occupy researchers today; Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update follows up on this theory.

When I started my professional career, Herman Kahn was a favorite futurist. His predictions were for the year 2000; comparing those to the realities of 2000 is fascinating.

A recent issue of Scientific American (September 2016) focused on the future and trying to figure out the 20 biggest questions facing humanity. They posed questions to leading scientists and asked their opinions. This was the latest in their annual “World Changing Ideas” series looking at exciting practical breakthroughs with functioning prototypes that have the potential to make important changes in our lives. In this issue they went further than usual by asking questions relevant to longer-term and more abstract projections.

Michio Kaku, a professor of physics at the City University of New York and master of writing about complex issues of physics in a way that is accessible to the general public, followed a similar route as the September 2016 issue of Scientific American but broadened his focus. He was fine with exploring more abstract concepts so long as they didn’t violate the laws of physics.

Asking very clever, accomplished people what they think the future will bring is a lot like asking a bench full of expert ice hockey players sitting in the stands at a particular hockey game where the puck will end up. They will provide professionally sound commentary that will be absolutely irrelevant to the game that is being played on the ice.

I recently read Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus; he is an Israeli historian of some note and puts forward his view of humanity’s future. For those of us challenged in Latin, Homo is man or human (as in Homo Sapiens), while Deus refers to God or a deity. Harari’s implication is that man will become a deity, in the sense that he will have eternal life. As far-fetched as this concept sounds, attempts to prolong human life beyond the present limits of slightly more than 100 years are being widely pursued – including by people with significant means.

Anybody that has visited Cuba within the last several decades (January 26, 2016 Blog) knows that one can take a ride in a perfectly functioning (and beautifully kept) 1950s American Chevrolet. Granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every part of the automobile that was constructed over 60 years ago is still functioning without a hitch today. What the Cubans have learned to do is to replace any parts that stopped working or were wearing down with new parts – either manufactured locally or imported from countries without sanctions against them (Russia was a favorite supplier for many years). The idea is, if you can do it with American cars you should eventually be able to do it with human beings as well. Whether the 500-year-old human being that will emerge will resemble the “original” remains unknown.

What “eternal life” will do to the population of the planet is not being addressed.

Looking at the future as a game or an exercise is fine but it is not a very productive exercise unless you try to take some control of the trajectory.

I will modify Gretzky’s original quote as follows: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be, trying to change or enforce a trajectory that ensures victory.” Both in hockey and in the game of global survival, victory requires a team of great players that cooperate with each other to achieve the common objective.

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