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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Happy New Year 2017

It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

– The Hay copy of what is believed to be the second draft of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

We can’t go on ignoring inequality, because we have the means to destroy our world but not to escape it.

Stephen Hawking

It’s time to stop complaining and to start a smiling campaign to ask ourselves what we can do to make the world a better place. We can’t rely on Prince Charming to swoop in and save us because – at least for the next four years, discounting major surprises – he won’t be making any guest appearances.

My wife used the end of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to describe her mood after the November election. Meanwhile, as Steven Hawking said, we don’t have much choice but to deal with our problems.

I’ve spent my life thinking of the US as a great country – one that has no need of a champion to “make America great again,” but that is not because we are the greatest country in the world; based on almost every socio-economic indicator, we most certainly do not hold that honor.

Here are some important measures; you can go to the original references to figure out what goes into these indicators:

Indicator Rank
Social Progress Index 16
Basic human needs 21
Foundation of well being 35
Opportunity 8

If one goes back to the history of similar indicators it is difficult to find support for the “again” aspect of Donald Trump’s motto.

I have no idea what the new administration will try to do; indeed, at the moment I am not sure that Trump himself knows what he wants to do. He won the election on a promise of change. With the exception of badly needed investment in infrastructure, though, such a departure translates to me as recipe for destruction, not building.

Whether or not America can accurately claim to be “greatest nation on Earth,” it does rank as one of the richest. The US is #9 in GDP per capita (PPP). It is also among the most resilient nations. Here are the top 10 countries listed in this category:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Norway
  3. Ireland
  4. Germany
  5. Luxembourg
  6. Netherlands
  7. United States Region 3 – Midwest
  8. Canada
  9. Australia
  10. Denmark

I have no idea why the American Midwest is listed as a country but it’s amazing to see the extent to which Europe monopolizes this list. Regardless of these metrics, I firmly believe that America holds the top spot for resiliency. I’m sure that the next four years will provide an important test of my opinion.

As I mentioned before, we don’t really know what kind of president Donald Trump will turn out to be. My own expectations are low but they are only based on his election campaign – on what he promised to do – or to be more precise, on what he promised to undo (almost everything).

I fully realize that whatever promises he made, his one objective was to win the election. It worked. A safe starting assumption is that as he tries to fulfill his election promises he will begin to understand the obstacles in his way. Given that he has surrounded himself with many people who have an equal lack of experience in governing, they will have to navigate as best they can. I, along with almost everybody else that I know, wish him the best of luck with that. That is my largest New Year resolution.

My biggest fear is the concept of risk that he brings with him. A business failure that translates into a tax deduction for the owner and the loss of jobs for his employees is a world apart from a failure to understand an adversary’s intentions to use nuclear weapons. Miscomprehension of the disastrousness of nuclear weapons could far too easily lead to accidentally committing global suicide.

It is true that not all presidents come equipped with a comprehensive understanding of the risks associated with being Commander in Chief and the post’s responsibility over our nuclear powers. Somehow, at least for me, Donald Trump invokes a larger degree of uncertainty than most.

In future blogs I will narrow my scope back to issues of climate change and try to avoid speculating about the President Elect’s policies, instead limiting myself to discussing his actions as they pertain to my subject. Specifically, I will continue my examination of grassroots mitigation efforts on a global scale as well as their potential collisions with top-down efforts.

In the meantime, Happy New Year, everyone!

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Impact Assessment: Self-Inflicted Genocide and the Toronto Principle

In the beginning of November I got an email from a student at the University of Pennsylvania that said the following:

My name is Richard Ling, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the Fossil Free Penn organization, and our university recently rejected our club’s proposal for fossil fuel divestment. Reason being that the Trustees did not consider fossil fuel investment as a “moral evil” comparable in severity to “genocide or apartheid.” However, in doing some research, I stumbled upon some of your articles (here is the link to the article I read:, in which you claim that climate change is comparable to the Holocaust in severity. We at Fossil Free Penn were immediately compelled by this argument, and we agree with you wholeheartedly.

Thus, Fossil Free Penn was wondering if you would be willing to assist us in our fight for divestment against our Trustees. Specifically, our group was wondering if you would be willing to write a small letter addressing the “moral evil” argument, and/or join us in a phone/Skype call to know more about your personal thoughts. Simple things, but nonetheless invaluable to our efforts.

Our club has worked for the past couple of years for this cause; you may read our proposal for divestment here:

Here was my response:

Thank you Richard for your email.

I am sorry to disappoint you but I will not be able to assist you in your campaign for disinvestment by writing a “small letter” addressing the “moral evil” aspect by invoking my Holocaust experience and my recent writing. The simple reason is that I don’t view the oil companies as “evil” and certainly not evil on the level of the Nazi government in the 1930 – 1945 period. The oil companies are businesses that want to maximize their profit. They view the required energy transition that we have to face as a threat to their profit and they want to minimize that threat. Some of the steps that they are taking such as support of the Heartland Institute and other deniers are probably against the law and are presently under litigation and some of their activities such as accounting as capital oil in the ground are perpetuated by bad regulations. To me none of these activities come close to the institutional horrors that constituted the Holocaust.  The citation that you use was not targeted against any specific institution. It was targeted mainly to the voting and educational public to try to influence political and educational activities toward minimizing future collective threats such as climate change.

I would be delighted to come to your school, give a talk and chat with everybody willing to discuss these important issues.


Richard was a good sport about my negative response to his request and invited me to give a talk; I did so on Thursday, December 1st.

There is a widespread strategy of divesting from fossil fuel companies to deter their continual promotion of organized climate change denial. Benjamin A. Franta’s piece in the Harvard Crimson urges the world-famous institution to take this approach:

Last December, a committee at the University of Toronto released a report on the issue of divestment, drawing a clear line by aligning itself with the needs of the Paris agreement. It recommended that the university not finance companies whose “actions blatantly disregard the international effort to limit the rise in average global temperatures to not more than one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages by 2050…These are fossil fuels companies whose actions are irreconcilable with achieving internationally agreed goals.” This principle, basic as it is, aligns rhetoric and action. It suggests that it is all institutions’ responsibility to give life to the Paris agreement. Harvard could adopt this Toronto principle, too, and the world would be better for it.

In practice, adopting the Toronto Principle would likely mean moving investments away from coal companies and coal-fired power plants, companies seeking non-conventional or aggressive fossil fuel development (such as oil from the Arctic or tar sands), and possibly also companies that distort public policies or deceive the public on climate. At present, these activities are incompatible with the agreement in Paris.

I wrote a blog on this issue (July 17, 2013), which was picked up by a number of publications. In the instance shown below, while I am listed as the author, the introductory paragraph is not mine but given that it includes an open link to my blog, it will do:

Unburnable Fuels: Removing Reserves From The Balance Sheet

By Micha Tomkiewicz

The notion advanced in this article, that fossil fuel companies might be significantly overvalued, has the ring of truth while also having enormous strategic potential. Quantitative analysis shows clearly that most recoverable fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground if we are to hold climate disruption to tolerable levels. This cannot help but impact the value of all fossil fuel related assets, from oil fields to coal mines, from oil tankers to refineries, and from coal fired power plants to coal fired cement kilns. Changes in accounting standards to reflect these lowered values could put pressure on stock prices, and this suggests that calling for such accounting changes would be a natural complement to the divestiture movement. While that would put a chink in the value of many investor portfolios, it would in the longer run create a more honest market in the stocks of fossil fuel related companies and in so doing would help investors make better decisions to protect themselves from downside risks. That makes this, as an argument and as a push for accounting standards change, a natural ally of the push for divestment.

It is obvious that I don’t object to divestment from fossil energy companies but this position has nothing to do with the Nazi atrocities that were responsible for the murder of most of my family. As I said at my Philadelphia talk:

Climate change as it stands now is not a genocide, not a crime against humanity, and not evil. It has the prospect to become all three. You don’t punish a prospect; you try to change it (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

I am also familiar with the now infamous Godwin’s Law about invoking Nazi history to describe everything that we might not like:

Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies)[1][2] is an Internet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1[2][3]—​​that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.

Richard’s request forced me to take another look at my claim that by the end of this century the impact of climate change would amount to “self-inflicted genocide.” I decided to see whether such an association didn’t need some narrowing. Reading Philippe Sands’ new book, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity helped me with this reassessment. The word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin and used in the 3rd indictment of the Nuremberg Trials. The definition used in the trial was: “Extermination of racial and religious groups, against the civilian populations of certain occupied territories in order to destroy particular races and classes of people and national, racial, or religious groups, particular Jews, Poles, Gypsies and others.” From Sands’ book I also learned that Lemkin’s best friend in Poland was my great uncle. I suddenly started to feel even more personal pressure to specify my use of the term in a context that I am almost sure Lemkin would not have agreed with.

My main purpose in using the term was to try to establish a clear marker of direction. The example that I gave was the Paris Metro, where each train line is identified by its end point. There is (I hope) a universal agreement that genocide is an utmost evil that must be avoided or dismantled via our collective international resolve. In this sense, my use is fully consistent with the UN use of the term and with the original Lemkin intention. The main indicator that I am making some impact in the right direction is that almost five years after I coined the application of the term on this blog it continues to be a focus of discussion – case in point: my talk in Philadelphia.

My next blog, which will be posted after the New Year, will shift its attention from the seemingly ineffectual top-down efforts toward change to bottom-up efforts that appear to be mushrooming. Rex Tillerson, the head of Exxon Mobil for the last few years – and the recently appointed Secretary of State – has been at the forefront of climate change deniers. Notwithstanding, this push from lower levels to take climate change into account and stop actively financing denial is also apparent within fossil fuel companies. Indeed, shakeups within some of the big oil companies, as documented in Bloomberg’s “Big Oil to Invest $1 Billion in Carbon-Capture Technology” and the NYT’s “Exxon against the Rockefellers,” are becoming more common.

As I wrote before, I share the view that 80% of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground and; they absolutely should not be burned unless an effective technology is developed to capture the greenhouse gases. Methods to achieve this objective include:

  • Boycotting
  • Exercising influence on fossil fuel companies through shareholder activism
  • Regulating through policy change
  • Reducing fossil fuel profitability through reduced demand (carbon tax, cap and trade and/or public education)
  • Expediting the technological development of alternatives

As always, I welcome your input as to other approaches. Happy holidays, everyone, and have a wonderful New Year!

Assessment: Since the beginning of October, on Twitter, I’m up to 375 followers. I also had 6 mentions, 5 retweets, and 11.3K tweet impressions. On Facebook, in the same time period, my page is up to 135 “likes” and 4,520 impressions. On my blog itself, I’m happy to report that I’ve had had 125K visits from 29,858 unique computers. To those of you reading, I thank you and (as always) welcome your comments. Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, “like” me on Facebook, and tell your friends to do the same. Not only do I post my newest blogs, I also share interesting articles and stories.

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Audience Assessment: End of Year Test

2016 is about to end. It was a very challenging year around the world. Certain factions gained ground internationally, winning significant majorities in publicly elected government. In some senses, globalization has become a curse – when it gives rise to the nationalistic, xenophobic movements we are seeing right now. There’s been almost no way to distinguish between real news and fake news. Meanwhile, instead of treating climate change as an early sign of a transition to a human-dominated (Anthropocene) era – with the accompanying responsibility and accountability, people in charge have deemed it a “Chinese conspiracy” or a “new false religion.”

I started this blog on Earth Day 2012 – my small contribution to countering these trends. It’s high time to see how I’m doing. I will dedicate the two next blogs to such assessments, given the momentous and alarming trends that we have all experienced in 2016. My hope is that by doing so, I will help myself (and you!) be able to start 2017 with an optimistic smiling face and some helpful resolutions in mind.

I am an academic and teacher. Any school assessment necessarily involves questions such as “how well is the institution satisfying its goals?” and “how are the students benefiting from the training that the institution provides?” My quarterly assessment blogs, which I started in July of 2014, have all focused on self-evaluations – mainly in terms of exposure and feedback. This time I want to turn my attention to you, the readers.

The end of the year also coincides with the end of the semester in most schools. One of the most important measures of students’ learning is their performance on their final exams.

I teach a General Education course on “Energy Use and Climate Change.” The only prerequisite (November 29th blog) for this course is Junior Standing; as far as I am concerned, even that condition is superfluous. As I tried to explain here in a series of blogs starting May 24, 2016 (“Educating for the Anthropocene”), my wish is for all 7.3 billion citizens on Earth (babies get an exemption) to have access to similar material. With that in mind, I am attaching the final exam that I gave my students at the end of the course. That way you can all try your hands at finding out how you (and I) are doing.

The three sections of the exam A, B and C were designed to cover three categories – A: thinking, B: skills to calculate quantitative implications, and C: following current events.

Students got two hours to complete the exam. In addition to the exam my students got an additional page that includes all necessary unit conversions and the chemical reactions that are involved in using the three main fossil fuels: coal, petroleum, and natural gas.

In attempting to solve the exam, you can take as much time as you need and freely use the information available on the internet. Please don’t put the questions to Google or Wikipedia and type the answers verbatim; this would be too transparent and embarrassing.

Here is the exam: Good luck!

Answer all three parts of the exam (A, B and C): Section A is worth 60 points, section B is worth 40 points, and section C is extra credits worth 10 points.    

A. Answer one question from section a and one question from section b.

a. If you look at the World Bank database’s website, there is a section under Data called Indicators with a section on climate change. Two of the 41 climate change indicators are given below:

  • Ease of doing business
  • Ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education

Select one of the two indicators and try to justify its inclusion in the climate change category.

b. If you look at the summary of the recent Work Energy Outlook 2016 that was issued by the International Energy Agency you will find summary of trends that resulted from the recent UN Climate Change Conference that was held in Paris on December 2015. Two of these trends include:

i. Energy and water: one doesn’t flow without the other with an emphasis that managing energy-water linkages is pivotal to the prospects for successful realization of a range of development and climate goals.

ii. Efficiency is the motor of change

Select one of these two trends and explain the reason why the IEA selected to focus on this trend to achieve the objectives of the Paris meeting.

B. Answer one question from section a and one question from section b: Unit conversion page is included on the bottom of the test.

a. Answer one of the two choices in the following question:
The table below shows the carbon coefficients of various fuels as calculated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Select one of the two Natural Gas entries and compare these values with first principle calculations. One value as an example will do.


Metric tons per capita

Energy Use

Kg of oil equivalent per capita



Population Growth


China 2.7 947 1.28 0.27
India 1.2 509 1.05 1.6
US 20.1 7936 0.29 1.1
World 3.9 1693 6.2 1.2

Use the data above to answer the following two questions:

  • Compare (in %) the top energy user and the top CO2 emitter with the World energy use and CO2
  • In class you have estimated that if present growth patterns will continue China’s GDP/Capita will approximately equal US GDP/Capita in about 50 years. Assuming again that present growth patterns will continue – what will be the approximate World population at that time?

b. Answer one of the two questions below.

  • An electric power generator of 1.5kW can supply electricity to an average American home. A modern wind turbine can generate up to 4 MW power. How many homes can it serve? (chapter 11).
  • How much coal will have the same heating value as 10 gallons of gasoline? (chapter 10)?

C.  President elect Donald Trump declared over his recent presidential campaign that climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to slow the American economy. He promised to take the US out of the recent Paris global agreement that was discussed in section A. What are his options once he takes office and what are the expected consequences from his actions?

Have a Happy Break!!

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The Urban/Rural Voting Split: a Global Perspective

Last week’s blog looked at the separation between the rural and urban vote in the just-concluded US presidential elections. This week I will examine whether this split is a unique American phenomenon or part of the global transition as we shift towards a human-controlled environment (Anthropocene – see previous blogs).

Figure 1 clearly shows that humanity is migrating in a massive way toward cities. The ratio between global urban populations and total population is increasing sharply.

Figure 1

A recent project was able to map the history of city settlements to the purported origin of their formation nearly 6,000 years ago.

(Esri, HERE, DeLorme, MapmyIndia, ©OpenStreetMap contributors, and the GIS user community/Meredith Reba et al, Scientific Data , Nature Publishing Group)

Figure 2first recorded populations for all urban settlements between 3700 B.C. and 2000 A.D.

Table 1 shows the 12 most populated cities in 1975, now (2016), and as projected for 2025.

Table 1 – Population of the 12 most populated urban environments

The data for the 1975 and 2025 were taken from a special Science issue dedicated to to marking humanity’s passing the 7 billion people threshhold (Science 333, 543 (2011)); the data for 2016 were taken from WorldAtlas.

I will return to this table in upcoming blogs to discuss the future impact of climate change on sea level rise. For instance, in business as usual scenarios, most of the people who live in these cities will have to move as the majority of said cities will eventually be flooded.

For most countries, the political consequences of this population redistribution will not be immediate – due in part to their lack of a one man-one vote democratic election system. Figure 3 shows a global map of the democratic index (March 8, 2016 blog).

By Ternoc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Figure 3 – Global map of the democratic index

Many commentators tried to compare the American election’s urban/rural split to that of Great Britain’s Brexit vote (August 16, 2016 blog). Recent results show that a total of 53.4% of people in England voted to leave the EU. However, this was not reflected in its major cities, most of which voted to remain.

Of its major cities, only Birmingham voted to leave, with a tight result of 50.4% (Leave) to 49.6% (Remain). As predicted, London voted in favor of remaining, but Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester also voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining. The results from other cities show a clear preference for the “remain” vote as well:

Birmingham: LEAVE: 50.4% REMAIN: 49.6%

Bristol: LEAVE 38.3% REMAIN: 61.7%

Leeds: LEAVE: 49.7% REMAIN: 50.3%

Liverpool: LEAVE: 41.8% REMAIN: 58.2%

London: LEAVE: 40.1% REMAIN: 59.9%

Manchester: LEAVE: 39.6% REMAIN: 60.4%

Aberdeen city LEAVE: 38.9% REMAIN: 61.1%

Edinburgh city: LEAVE: 25.6% REMAIN: 74.4%

Glasgow city: LEAVE: 33.4% REMAIN: 66.6%

Cardiff: LEAVE: 40% REMAIN: 60%

A much more interesting case might be to examine the urban/rural split of the most recent (2014) vote in the largest democracy on the face of the earth – India. Figure 4 shows the performance of the two main national blocks: The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by India’s National Congress. In terms of parliamentary seats, it was a landslide win for the NDA (336 seats for the NDA and 58 seats for the UPA). However the rural/urban split among both the literate and illiterate electorate was considerably more balanced.

Figure 4

814 million Indians were eligible to vote and the country had a participation rate of 66.5%. India’s issues were obviously different than those of England and the US, but the common denominator was the desire for change shared by both urban and rural constituencies. One important, noticeable issue in India’s elections was the limited representation of the Muslim population. Only 22 of the 543 elected parliamentary seats went to Muslims, even though Islam is the second largest religion in India, its practitioners making up 14.2% of the population. 172 million people in India are self-declared Muslims (2011 census) yet they only got 4% of the seats. For comparison, African Americans constitute 12.2% of the US population (approximately 38 million people); within the current congressional term (the 114th US Congress), they hold 2% of the Senate (2 out of 100 seats) and 10.5% of the House of Representatives (46 out of 435 seats).

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Election and Urbanization

Last month (November 22), I promised I would focus on some of the non-racial factors that significantly impacted the presidential elections. Last week’s blog explored educational aspects and today’s post will look at the urban/rural divide. The four figures below summarize the data.

The first figure, taken from the Economist (the original sources were not specifically accredited within the article), provides the most complete description because it presents voting preferences as a function of a proper, measurable, non-confrontational variable: voter density (the reciprocal is square mile per voter). The scale is logarithmic (August 6, 2012 blog) to represent the extreme differences between high density urban populations and low density rural populations.

It is unfortunate that the data in the figure focus on density of voter population rather than that of the general population but in this case it is safe to assume that both are highly correlated.

population-density-and-vote-share-by-county-2016Figure 1

Is this sharp divide a Trump effect? Figure 2, which provides similar data from the 2012 elections clearly shows via total population density that this is not the case. The scale that they chose to use for Figure 2 is especially interesting (and somewhat suspicious) once you look closer. The horizontal scale is linear (a constant of 20 people per square mile) almost until the red and blue lines intersect, at which time it converts sharply into a non-linear logarithmic scale. Even after employing this kind of ruse, Figure 1 shows data for 6 orders of magnitude change in population density while Figure 2 shows data for variations that span less than 5 orders of magnitude. Proper scaling would require a repeat of the logarithmic scaling shown in Figure 1, which would (more accurately) show a much smoother transition between rural and urban voters.

population-density-vs-2012-election-resultsFigure 2

Meanwhile, the definitions of what constitute urban or rural areas can be controversial and somewhat arbitrary. Urban areas are usually associated with city populations, however, city boundaries often originate from political decisions. I ran across this difficulty when my students tried to calculate contributing factors to climate change through the IPAT identity (November 26, 2012) [Yevgeniy Ostrovskiy and Michael Cheng and Micha Tomkiewicz; “Intensive and Extensive Parametrization of Energy Use and Income in US States and in Global Urban Environments,” The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.95-107.(2013)]. In that instance, we couldn’t find data that listed the indicators in a continuous way throughout density variations. We will try to revisit this project with different students to see if we can find more conclusive information.

Here is how the Census Bureau defines rural and urban:

Source: US Census Bureau

Released: Oct. 1995


The Census Bureau defines “urban” for the 1990 census as comprising all territory, population, and housing units in urbanized areas and in places of 2,500 or more persons outside urbanized areas.  More specifically, “urban” consists of territory, persons, and housing units in:

  1. Places of 2,500 or more persons incorporated as cities, villages, boroughs (except in Alaska and New York), and towns (except in the six New England States, New York, and Wisconsin), but excluding the rural portions of “extended cities.”
  1. Census designated places of 2,500 or more persons.
  1. Other territory, incorporated or unincorporated, included in urbanized areas.

Territory, population, and housing units not classified as urban constitute “rural.”  In the 100-percent data products, “rural” is divided into “places of less than 2,500” and “not in

places.”  The “not in places” category comprises “rural” outside incorporated and census designated places and the rural portions of extended cities.  In many data products, the term “other rural” is used; “other rural” is a residual category specific to the  classification of the rural in each data product.

In the sample data products, rural population and housing units are subdivided into “rural farm” and “rural nonfarm.”  “Rural farm” comprises all rural households and housing units on farms (places from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were sold in 1989); “rural nonfarm” comprises the remaining rural.

The urban and rural classification cuts across the other hierarchies; for example, there is generally both urban and rural territory within both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas.

Based on these definitions, the rural/urban 2016 election divide can be simplified to resemble Figure 3 (

rural-suburban-urban-votes-2016-presidential-electionFigure 3Blue: Clinton; Red: Trump; Yellow: Johnson; Green: Stein

In the election results shown in Figures 1 and 2, the rural/urban patterns look similar. In both elections, the Democrats won a small majority of the popular vote but – as we’ve discussed (November 1, 2016), the electoral vote is the deciding factor. Donald Trump clearly won that race this year as Barack Obama did in 2012.

One of the most pressing issues is the reason for the persistently sharp rural/urban split. This became a key talking point for an increasing number of commentators, but I have to admit that I still don’t have a satisfying answer that can account for it.

Nor is this specific to the United States. One of the most striking impacts of the Anthropocene period is rapid global urbanization, which I will discuss next week. Figure 4 shows some historic data about this trend in the US:

US Rural and Urban Population Growth Chart Figure 4 US Rural and Urban Population Chart from Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change , published in 2001

The numbers clearly show that, as in the rest of the world, people are flocking to cities, which now comprise an overwhelming majority of the country’s population. Yet the rural populations in a few states can still shift presidential elections. This has caused many (on the losing side) to start grumbling about dissolving the Electoral College – something that I have argued against (November 1). Here is what the NYT’s Emily Badger recently wrote about it:

The Democratic candidate for president has now won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. But in part because the system empowers rural states, for the second time in that span, the candidate who garnered the most votes will not be president.

Rural America, even as it laments its economic weakness, retains vastly disproportionate electoral strength. Rural voters were able to nudge Donald J. Trump to power despite Hillary Clinton’s large margins in cities like New York. In a House of Representatives that structurally disadvantages Democrats because of their tight urban clustering, rural voters helped Republicans hold their cushion. In the Senate, the least populous states are now more overrepresented than ever before. And the growing unity of rural Americans as a voting bloc has converted the rural bias in national politics into a potent Republican advantage.

“If you’re talking about a political system that skews rural, that’s not as important if there isn’t a major cleavage between rural and urban voting behavior,” said Frances Lee, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “But urban and rural voting behavior is so starkly different now so that this has major political consequences for who has power.

As Figure 4 demonstrates, the urban population is rapidly increasing, largely by means of migration. These newer urban dwellers are often exposed to minorities and immigrants more than their rural counterparts, as well as being forced to adapt faster to change. These interactions have become major markers in recent elections.

Significant fragments of the decreasing rural populations love their settings and have no desire to mingle with the city crowds. They cling to the past, wanting to recreate bygone conditions that would enable them to have what they believe (or were told by their parents) to be good life. This subset doesn’t like the changes taking place that apparently benefit the cities. Therefore, since the migration from rural to urban areas does take place, an important question is the nature of the clustering; i.e. who is moving. When I examined this, I noticed that these migrating constituencies include especially high percentages of (college educated) professionals and young people.

As we’ll see next week, on a global scale this urbanization process is not necessarily restricted to clustering at the top; rather, the main transplants are simply those looking for better jobs. Some of these newcomers are international immigrants who settle in poorer neighborhoods in search of better economic opportunities for themselves and their families. While sovereign countries can block some such immigration, in-country migration is subject to fewer restrictions. This means that the people who stay behind in the countryside include increasing numbers of older people who for various reasons did not attend college. In essence, this creates two new countries: one looking to the future and the other which strongly dislikes that future and has the power to slow down progress. Our Founding Fathers constructed the electoral system the way that they did specifically to force the government to pay attention to the rural population.

This analysis is far from complete; almost half of the electorate – about 100 million eligible voters – didn’t bother to vote, so they are not included in these data. In fact, at the moment I know more about rural/urban voter participation in India than I know about the distribution of these voters in the US. I will endeavor to fix that gap in my knowledge.

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